In the last minute of their Week 4 games on Saturday, Pac-12 North rivals Oregon and Washington both had a one-score lead and the ball. Oregon blew its lead and lost in overtime, while Washington never gave up possession and won without incident. In large part, their different fates were the results of choices their coaches made about clock management.
Up 3 with a minute left against Stanford, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal stayed aggressive without doing anything too wild.
There were 58 seconds on the game clock and about two seconds on the play clock. Oregon faced a second-and-2 at the Stanford 42, and Stanford had one timeout left.
That meant Oregon wouldn’t quite be able to kill the rest of the clock by just running ahead or taking a knee. The 40-second play clock would give Stanford the ability to call a timeout around the 52-seconds-remaining mark, or whenever UO’s second-down play ended. Then, barring a 12-second third-down play, the Ducks would have to run some kind of play with at least a few seconds left on the game clock if they didn’t get a first down.
So, Cristobal’s team kept pushing. Justin Herbert handed to CJ Verdell, who got the yardage he needed for a first down. Game over! Except he fumbled, and Stanford fell on it at 0:51.
The Cardinal drove 46 yards in six plays, tied the game with a field goal, then won in overtime. It was an epic gut punch for the Ducks. Final score: 38-31, Stanford.
A few hours later, in Seattle, Washington’s Chris Petersen called for a different game-ending approach.
Arizona State was out of timeouts, down a touchdown. Washington had a third-and-3 at the Sun Devils’ 37.5-yard line, with 44 seconds on the clock. The Huskies instructed QB Jake Browning to take a shotgun snap, sprint out to his right behind a shifting group of blockers all in pass-protection sets, and then take a seat once the game clock was inside 0:40. The Sun Devils didn’t have any timeouts, so such a play would end the game.
It worked like a charm.
Final score: UW 27, ASU 20.
Petersen and Herm Edwards were running out to midfield to greet each other while there were still 25 seconds left on the game clock. Washington ended any chance of ASU getting the ball back, as without timeouts, the Sun Devils couldn’t extend a game with fewer than 40 seconds left. The Huskies pulled it off with as little risk as possible.
It’s not that Oregon was dumb for trying to get the first down. It’s just that Washington was smarter for doing what it did.
Verdell had 19 carries for 123 yards before his fateful fumble. The Ducks had fumbled twice earlier in the game, a few plays apart in the third quarter. One of those got returned for a long, game-turning touchdown. But Verdell hadn’t fumbled, and Cristobal wasn’t out of his mind for expecting things to turn out fine if he just kept plunging ahead.
But if you’ve got a purely clock-killing play in the playbook — the kind they don’t even put into video-game playbooks, because it’d look so silly — it’s best to use that one. The odds of a devastating fumble are low in either event, but they’re really low when the offense doesn’t allow the ball-carrier to get hit at all and prevents another play from even happening.