To spike or not to spike? Clocking the football

TheFootballEducator.com contributor Frank Martin takes a look at a very controversial topic and its affect on three major football games.

To spike or not to spike

That is the question… of the week.

This weekend, clocking the football, was a hot topic.  (Mostly, when is the right time to clock the ball and when is the wrong time to clock the ball.)  After witnessing a few games “influenced by” or “decided on” last minute drives we kept asking ourselves…

Should you always clock the football with time winding down?  Should you never do it?  What the heck is clocking the football anyway? (That’s why you click the first link)

Luckily, I solved the problem.  But to get there, we need to examine how the question came up.

As I mentioned before, at least three times this past week games were decided or heavily influenced by a team’s decision whether or not to clock the ball in the waning seconds of a half or game.  It’s a hot topic.  A very hot topic.  The SEC Championship game drew the most attention to the idea of clocking the football as it decided who will play for the national championship, but the debate was never settled.  Until now.

(In each of the following three cases, the team in question had zero remaining timeouts)

On Thursday, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints offense ruined an opportunity to score points right before the half of their game against Atlanta.  At the Falcons 5, the Saints tried to run a play with 12 seconds left in the second quarter (and the clock running).  When Darren Sproles was tackled inside the Falcons 3, the clock ran out.  The mistake cost New Orleans at least a field goal attempt.  Three points the Saints could’ve used when they were trying to catch Atlanta in the 4th quarter.

Should the Saints have clocked the ball? YES. 

Because it was only the first half, New Orleans was battling time and not the scoreboard.  Three points doesn’t win or lose you the game.  While Drew Brees wanted to score a touchdown in that situation, a field goal is still a successful end to the drive.  By clocking the football, Brees would have given his team at least one “controlled” shot at trying for a touchdown.  (By “controlled” I mean a play that limits the threat of a turnover or sack.  Say a fade to Jimmy Graham or Marques Colston in the corner of the end zone, or quick slant to Lance Moore at the goal line.)

 If that play doesn’t work, you still have time to kick the field goal.

On Friday, poor clock management helped decide the Pac-12 Championship game.  In the 4th quarter, trailing by three… and driving, UCLA converted on a 4th down and 7 to reach the Stanford 37 yard line with :51 seconds remaining in the game.

As most of you know, in college football the clock stops while the sideline officials move the chains to the new line of scrimmage then the clock is restarted.   This leaves precious few seconds to organize a plan of attack before the officials whistle for the clock to start up again, but at least the clock is stopped.  UCLA decided to clock the ball.  After the play, :47 seconds remained on the clock.  (Yeah, game officials ran off 4 seconds… even “clocking” costs time.)

On second down, the Bruins completed a quick pass to the 34 yard line and the wide receiver was able to get to the sideline.  :44 seconds remaining.  The third down play was incomplete, :39 seconds remaining.

Faced with a 4th down, UCLA had the option of trying to convert on a fourth and 5, or attempt a game-tying field goal.  UCLA coach Jim Mora opted for the kick, which was short and the Bruins lost the game.

Should UCLA have clocked the ball? NO. 

In this case, UCLA was battling yardage first and clock second.  The Bruins needed to at least get somewhere inside the 30 yard line to give their kicker a realistic shot at making the kick.  That means they needed every play afforded to them to try and get those yards.  Essentially by clocking the football on first down, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone cost him team one additional opportunity to get the yardage needed.

Which brings us to the aforementioned SEC championship game.    You should know the scenario by now.  Down 4, the Georgia Bulldogs needed a touchdown to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship game.  Bulldog complete a pass to the 8, first down, time winding down…

OK, I’ll cut to the chase…

Was Mark Richt wrong for NOT clocking the ball?  Yes, and no. 

Wait what???

Yeah, I even confused myself with that one.  Let me explain.

While I think the Bulldogs should have stopped the clock after the completion to the Alabama 8, I don’t think it would have changed the result of the game.

Why?  Quite simply, Georgia would have likely called the same play, and thus when the Georgia receiver caught the football and went to the turf… Time would have run out any way.

So…???

So when is it the right time to clock the ball?  I know it can be confusing.   So I came up with a simple way to tell if you or your team made the right decision when it comes to clocking the football.

Ask yourself one question, “Did we win?”  If the answer is yes, then you made the right decision.  That’s the simplest part of it all.

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