No Huddle: Do You Go for Two to Beat the No. 1 Team or Play for Overtime?


You’re the coach of a Power Five college football team and your offense just put together a 16-play, 75-yard scoring drive to score a touchdown with less than 90 seconds left in a game against the No. 1 team in the country, which is coming off of a season in which it became the first 15-0 national champion in the sport in over 100 years.

The touchdown brings you within one point of that team, which means you can either kick the PAT to tie the game and play for overtime at home or you can roll the dice and go for two and the win, pushing your metaphorical chips of 58 and a half minutes of good play into the middle of the table.

What do you do?

That’s the decision that North Carolina Coach Mack Brown faced Saturday when Javonte Williams’ one-yard touchdown run cut No. 1 Clemson’s lead to 21-20.

He elected for the latter in a move that, anecdotally, seemed to be met with approval – before and after UNC failed on its two-point conversion attempt – by analysts and media members on TV and Twitter.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the play North Carolina ran – an option designed to get Clemson’s momentum going to the left while quarterback Sam Howell ran to the right.

The only – or rather, the biggest – problem is that Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas (#3 lined up on the edge on the near side) ran completely untouched through North Carolina’s line between the Tar Heels’ right tackle and tight end.

North Carolina’s right tackle was left searching for someone to block (if you watch the play through, he never really blocks anyone) and Thomas is able to prevent Howell from getting to the edge, chasing him into two awaiting Tigers. The ball squirts out and bounces perfectly to wide receiver Dazz Newsome at the 4-yard line but he ran into his own teammate and was knocked out of bounds.

No good.

 

The play’s execution should take the brunt of any criticism rather than its design – Clemson linebacker James Skalski, who helped tackle Howell, was also unblocked – but we’re here to discuss the decision of going for the two-point conversion vs. taking the PAT, not the play itself. (If you’re interested in two-point conversion play-calling, here’s a story from Big Ten Media Days where I asked players to diagram a hypothetical game-winning two-point conversion to win the Big Ten Championship.)

I was curious, just how often does a team go for two against the No. 1 team in the country and how often does it work?

The last successful two-point conversion scored against the No. 1 team in the country was from South Carolina against Clemson in Week 13 of the 2015 season, when Lorenzo Nunez ran it in following a direct snap to cut the Tigers’ lead to 28-25 with 12:19 left in the fourth quarter. Clemson won 37-32 to complete an undefeated regular season.

Like 2019 North Carolina, 2015 South Carolina was playing at home and it was a vastly inferior team that season as the Gamecocks finished the year 3-9.

Since that game, the No. 1 team in the country – it has usually been Alabama or Clemson – has surrendered 94 touchdowns, an average of 1.8 per game, and the opposing team has gone for two after just five of those scores.

Four of the five two-point tries came against Alabama in the fourth quarter. Here’s the complete breakdown:

  • 2015 ACC Championship: No. 10 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Clemson, leading 9-7, 1:44 remaining in the first quarter
  • Week 3 in 2016: No. 19 Ole Miss vs. No. 1 Alabama, trailing 48-43, 2:51 remaining in the fourth quarter
  • Week 6 in 2016: No. 16 Arkansas vs. No. 1 Alabama, trailing 49-30, 3:18 remaining in the fourth quarter
  • Week 13 in 2017: No. 6 Auburn vs. No. 1 Alabama, leading 20-14, 12:49 remaining in the fourth quarter
  • Week 3 in 2017: Colorado State vs. No. 1 Alabama, trailing 41-23, 1:46 remaining in the fourth quarter

 

So based on that 3.5-year sample size, the opposing team goes for two against the No. 1 team roughly five percent of the time after it scores a touchdown.

Mack Brown’s decision Saturday felt like one of those justifiable five-percent decisions.

In many regards (yards per carry, 3-and-outs, first downs), North Carolina played Clemson to a relative draw in Week 5 but North Carolina’s previous possessions in the second half ended in a turnover on downs at Clemson’s 45, a punt after a four-play, two-yard drive, a punt after a five-play, 15-yard drive and a 3-and-out.

In other words, North Carolina wasn’t dicing up Clemson’s defense – at least not with any consistency.

The Tar Heels’ first two touchdowns came after Dyami Brown called his shot with a wave to quarterback Sam Howell before a little stutter-step that set up a touchdown on the opening drive of the game (shown below) and the second came after Clemson fumbled in its own territory.

 

In a simplistic, mathematical point of view, Clemson was arguably more likely to win the game the longer that it continued, based on the talent gap between the two teams and the principles of variance. It’s why North Carolina would be more likely to win if, say, each team only had two possessions in the game than if each team had the ball 20 times on offense.

The longer the sample size, the more likely the outcome is to meet its expected result. When the team ranked No. 1 in the country is playing a 2-2 team, the expected result is that the No. 1 team in the country is going to win.

“I’ve always had the theory that the longer the game goes, the best team wins,” Mack Brown said after the game, “and they had the best team.”

“I felt like that with the clock getting down to 1:16 that our best chance to win the game was to go for two because we had been out there a lot on defense and worn down and they had more depth than we had,” Brown said. “I just felt like it was our chance, and then we still had a minute and sixteen (seconds) and we were trying to kill some time, but we scored too fast, and Phil (Longo) thought he had a good play to win the game on the two points and just didn’t do it.”

Did Mack have any regrets with his decision?

“I have absolutely no doubt in my mind we should’ve gone for two,” he said. “I just wish we had made it. We’re having a different conversation if we make it. You’re all talking about me being a genius instead of an idiot. So, that’s the difference in two points.”

Kicking the PAT successfully extends the game for North Carolina, likely forcing overtime, but when you’re at a significant talent disadvantage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

 

1st & 10

  1. Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith had 11 receptions for 274 yards and five touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s 59-31 win over Ole Miss, including 221 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. Touchdowns Nos. 2-4 came in a four-minute, 40-second stretch in the second quarter. Not bad for the team’s third-best receiver.
  2. Speaking of Ole Miss, I wouldn’t have wanted to share the coaches’ box with Rich Rodriguez yesterday.
  3. Against Notre Dame, Virginia executed the best on-side kick I’ve ever seen.
  4. In a losing effort against No. 25 Michigan State and SP+’s No. 1 defense in the country, Indiana redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr.was 33-for-42 for 286 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 20 straight completions in the first road start of his career.
  5. No. 24 SMU (5-0) is ranked for the first time since 1986.
  6. Baylor has made one (1) field goal this season and it was a 38-yarder in the final minute to beat Iowa State on Saturday. Maybe it’s the Bears, not the Cyclones, who are the Big 12’s third-best team.
  7. FOX analyst Reggie Bush’s thoughts on No. 8 Wisconsin’s 24-15 win over Northwestern: “Two really good teams going at it.” That’s, uh, one way to put it when describing a game in which the Wildcats’ offense (No 123 SP+) was involved.
  8. Serious question: Is this the fastest punter in the country? (Shoutout to his teammate, No. 44, for not caring to block downfield at all.)
  9. Oklahoma converted on a 4th & 11 from Texas Tech’s 41-yard line and I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
  10. Later in the half, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts scrambled for a 25-yard gain on 2nd & 10 (shown below) as he picked up extra yards by side-stepping Red Raiders defensive back Dadrion Taylor, causing Taylor to launch into teammate Xavier Benson, who needed medical attention from Texas Tech’s training staff. It was a hit that would’ve been called targeting if Benson was a Sooner. If you rewatch the play, there wasn’t an eye-popping juke or display of top-end speed that allowed Hurts to pick up 25 yards. But it was an incredible play nonetheless. He showed tremendous pocket awareness and downfield vision, then showed the lower-body strength to keep his legs moving. Plays like that are why he was back in the weight room after the win.

 

 

Maybe we should’ve seen this coming

I subscribe to various teams’ media relations mailing lists and Rutgers just so happens to be one of those teams.

After Rutgers’ 30-16 loss to Boston College, which lost 48-24 to Kansas (!) the previous week, I received a transcript of Rutgers Coach Chris Ash’s post-game press conference.

Well, make that former Rutgers Coach Chris Ash, because he was relieved of his duties, along with Offensive Coordinator John McNulty, on Sunday.

I knew that Week 4 Q&A session felt ominous and I saved it for a rainy day, not wanting to spend too much thought on anything concerning Rutgers football in 2019.

Here’s an excerpt from the Ash’s press conference after Rutgers lost to Boston College, copied and pasted directly from the transcript I received.

Chris, you say it’s all on you. Where did you fail today?

CHRIS ASH: We lost the game. Didn’t play clean enough.

Q (Question).

CHRIS ASH: I didn’t prepare the guys well enough.

Q (Question).

CHRIS ASH: Played outstanding.

Q (Question).

>> We’ll worry about that later. I’m just worried about today.

Q Did you discuss the decision to punt fourth and ten late in the fourth quarter from the Boston College 40?

CHRIS ASH: Fourth and ten, it is a long situation. Just felt it was best to do.

Q (Question).

CHRIS ASH: Yeah. He’s fine.

Q The fan base, seems to be exacerbated judging from the attendance.

CHRIS ASH: I’m just trying to work like heck to get our football team to play better only Saturdays is about what my concern is.

Q I was hoping to ask this later in the year considering everything. Are you worried about your job status going forward?

CHRIS ASH: No. I’m worried about our football team.

I didn’t watch a video of the press conference and I didn’t need to. I could hear the tone of the press conference through Ash’s four and five-word sentences.

Getting asked about your job security in Week 4 is certainly never a good sign, either.

In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Ash was fired after his 8-32 record at the school. Rutgers’ 10 losses in 2016 and 11 losses in 2018 were the most nationally.

The Scarlet Knights have been the biggest losers of the 12 Power Five schools that changed conferences between 2011 and 2014.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that Ash was fired and if your school’s head coach’s press conferences start sounding like Ash’s did in Week 4, that’s probably a red flag about his future.

 

Fact or Fiction: Does Jalen Hurts ever get sacked?

At halftime of No. 6 Oklahoma’s 55-16 rout of Texas Tech, future USC Coach FOX analyst Urban Meyer was asked about Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts’ play in the first half and he said, “He never gets sacked.”

Of course Meyer didn’t mean that literally but it made me wonder, how often has Hurts been sacked behind Oklahoma’s sturdy offensive line?

And has he been sacked any more or less frequently than he was at Alabama?

I set out to find out in this week’s “Fact or Fiction?”

Through Week 5, Hurts has attempted 85 passes for Oklahoma and he’s been sacked just three times.

All three sacks occurred after Oklahoma had built a massive lead and two came on clear passing downs when the Sooners needed at least 15 yards to pick up a first down:

  • 3rd & 15 in the second quarter vs. South Dakota, 21-0
  • 1st & 10 in the second quarter at UCLA, 27-7
  • 2nd & 17 in the second quarter vs. Texas Tech, 31-10

 

Hurts’ mobility, within the pocket and as a runner in the open field, which essentially makes him a tailback when he leaves the pocket, is what makes him so hard to sack (along with Oklahoma’s notoriously strong offensive line). That also makes it difficult to track just how many times he has dropped back to pass this season using play-by-play data.

But conservatively, we can calculate his sack percentage by adding his pass attempts (85) and the number of times he’s been sacked (three).

That’s three sacks on 88 passing plays, or a 3.4 percent sack rate. Oklahoma is tied for fifth in the country in sacks allowed, behind only Air Force (1), Duke (1), Georgia (1) and New Mexico (2).

In reality, that 3.4 percent figure is even lower if you include the number of times that Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley has called a passing play, only for Hurts’ receivers to be covered, the opposing defense to force him from the pocket or for Hurts to simply decide he has open running lanes in front of him.

Every time that Hurts has scrambled on a passing play was an opportunity for him to get sacked, prior to the scramble, and he avoided taking a sack thanks to his legs and his vision.

Just watch Hurts feel the pressure from Texas Tech’s four-man rush on 2nd & 10 Saturday, only to turn a potential sack into the aforementioned 25-yard gain.

 

Plays like that are part of the reason why Oklahoma’s offense has been more explosive under Hurts than it was under Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray through the same number of games.

If Hurts and his O-line can keep up that rate of avoiding sacks, Hurts will have cut his sack rate by more than half compared to his last season as Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2017.

If we use the same methodology (sack percentage = sacks/pass attempts + sacks), his sack rate was 8.2 percent in 2017 with him being sacked 23 times and throwing the ball 255 times.

That includes being sacked five times by Mississippi State, four times by LSU and three times by Texas A&M.

Sure, the quality of opposing defenses plays a significant role in how often a quarterback is sacked. The highest-ranked Big 12 defense this season in terms of the SP+ rankings is TCU at No. 17.

There are three SEC defenses ranked higher than the Horned Frogs and Auburn checks in just one spot behind TCU at No. 18, so even if the whole “No one plays defense in the Big 12” narrative is a little played out, the numbers suggest the SEC produces more dominant defenses at the top of the conference than the Big 12.

And admittedly, it’s not like Oklahoma’s first four games have presented too much of a challenge defensively with Texas Tech (No. 36 defense, according to SP+), UCLA (No. 82 SP+ defense), Houston (No. 108 SP+ defense) and South Dakota (FCS).

But regardless of the competition, Hurts’ current pace of being sacked less than once per game, on average, and roughly once every 33 times he intends to pass certainly backs up Urban Meyer’s statement that in 2019, Jalen Hurts (almost) never gets sacked.

Verdict: FACT

 

Previously on “Fact or Fiction?”:

 

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