Clemson beat Auburn on Saturday, 19-13. The game wasn't especially close for most of the second half, but it was really close for a few moments at the very end. And that's because Clemson did some mind-numbingly dumb things.
The purpose of this isn't to get a shot in at Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who knows more about football than me and is one of the best in the world at what he does. But Swinney made a call that threw Clemson's surefire victory into the most jeopardy possible, and it was so weird it has to be discussed.
To set the scene: Clemson led Auburn 19-13 (the eventual final score) with just a shade more than 40 seconds on the clock. Clemson had the ball at Auburn's 23-yard line, facing fourth down-and-4. Auburn was out of timeouts. (The game could've ended earlier, had Clemson running back Wayne Gallman not let himself be run out of bounds on third-and-10. That would've left Auburn with five seconds or less after any kind of fourth-down play.)
Still, Swinney, leading by six points, had two pretty obvious options:
1. Kick a 41-yard field goal. That's the distance from Auburn's 23, and Clemson has a really good kicker. Greg Huegel was a second-team All-American last year, and he was already 2-of-2 on Saturday, including a 40-yard make. A field goal would've made the margin nine points with inside a minute left, and with no Auburn timeouts, that would've been all. A missed field goal would've given Auburn the ball with 69 yards to go.
2. Try for a game-ending first down. This seems to make not much sense, but there are rationales in which it works. Clemson has the best quarterback in the country, Deshaun Watson. A 4-yard completion would've ended the game. Getting stopped on downs would've saved Auburn roughly 4-8 yards of field position compared to a missed field goal. That's out of about 70 yards.
Swinney chose Door No. 2. But Clemson didn't throw! Watson handed off to Gallman on fourth-and-4, and Gallman (who's a really good runner) was stacked up for a 2-yard gain. Whether Swinney or one of Clemson's co-offensive coordinators made the run call is immaterial. It was allowed to happen.
So Auburn got the ball back with 40 seconds and 85 yards to go. And it was still a one-possession game. Swinney started to bark at his players that Auburn didn't have any timeouts, as if he'd planned meticulously for this exact decision and outcome. His rationale is, um, unconvincing.
Dabo on not kicking the FG @ end: "I played the odds and I wanted to put it in the hands of our defense." Didn't want a blocked kick return.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 4, 2016
More Dabo: "If they march down the field with 40 seconds and no timeouts I'm going to go down and shake their hand and say great job."— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 4, 2016
Not wanting a blocked kick return is fair, but it's awfully specific and unlikely to happen. Let's just not bother with any notion that this is somehow better because Swinney would be a good sport about it if Auburn were able to somehow score without any timeouts.
ESPN's Scott Van Pelt interviewed Swinney immediately after the game. Swinney said his team made some "very poor decisions," citing Gallman running out of bounds the play before. He said his team hadn't been "intelligent" enough, as if he hadn't just eschewed a middling field goal with a good kicker that would've ended the game in favor of a rush attempt for 4 yards, on a night when his team ran for a 3.4-yard average in total.
This was extraordinarily poor in-game management. It almost had consequences.
After Swinney's tomfoolery, Auburn's mediocre offense had just a slim chance of getting the 85 yards it needed to score a touchdown and win on an extra point. But it almost happened.
Auburn got two Hail Mary tries from Clemson's 40-yard line.
The first gave two receivers a two-on-one shot to beat a defensive back for the winning touchdown.
The second had to be swatted to the ground after a deflection, with three blue jerseys in the immediate vicinity.
Swinney is a great coach. He messed up really badly here, and he's lucky he didn't become a punchline.