Criticizing with the benefit of hindsight is one of the laziest forms of sports commentary. Dumb decisions sometimes produce good outcomes. Smart calls can still go poorly. Such is the nature of probability. Knowing how to distinguish between the processes and the outcomes separates smart analysis from knee-jerk bitching.
When a team plays three consecutive games like the ones that the Oklahoma Sooners just completed, though, the head coach’s decisions are going to come under more scrutiny than usual. OU’s win over the Texas Longhorns last weekend followed a disturbingly consistent pattern of Lincoln Riley’s team collapsing in the second half of games. Against Kansas State, it was a 21-point lead erased in the span of about a quarter. Iowa State overcame a 30-23 deficit in the fourth quarter to pull out a 37-30 win over the Sooners. UT nearly pulled off a similar trick last weekend, making up a 14-point margin in the final four minutes of the game before OU eventually won in four overtimes.
The most common criticisms of teams suffering this malady take the form of “they lack killer instinct” or that their coaches “take their foot off the gas” too early. These nebulous psychological critiques don’t offer much in the way of actionable steps to alleviate the problem. Riley can’t go out and make plays on behalf of his players. He can control how he manages games, however.
Let’s take a look at a couple events from the Red River Showdown that offer insight into some areas where Riley may want to re-evaluate his approach.
OU started its second drive of the game on its own 40 yard line following a fumble by Texas running back Keaontay Ingram. The Sooners covered 58 yards on eight plays before finding themselves facing fourth down from Texas’ two. Rather than attempting to punch the ball into the end zone, Riley took the easy three on a 19-yard field goal by kicker Gabe Brkic.
The decision mirrored a similar call Riley made a week earlier when OU kicked from the ISU one on its opening drive of the game. The justification might revolve around the idea of putting your opponent at a deficit right away. Other coaches may want to avoid a “momentum swing” from a goal-line stand so early in the game.
But there’s reason to believe these are categorically bad decisions.
For example, let’s assume making a field goal that close to the goal line is the functional equivalent of kicking an extra point. The national median conversion rate for point-after attempts in college football consistently hits around 98%. If you’re scoring three points 98% of the time, kicking in this situation carries an expected value of 2.94 points.
How often does a team need to score touchdowns to reach the same expected value under those conditions? The expected value of going for the touchdown in this case equals six points times the likelihood of scoring plus one point times the likelihood of making the extra point (which we already know to be 0.98):
EV = (X*6) + 0.98
As such, the likelihood of scoring would have to fall below 33% for it to produce a lower expected value than kicking a field goal. (For reference’s sake, the national median average of converting on all fourth downs is just north of 50%.) Obviously, this is far from a foolproof formula, but it lends credence to the idea that trying to hit pay dirt is the better call, all things being equal.
Put simply: OU shouldn’t be kicking when it’s on the doorstep of the end zone, especially in the first quarter of a scoreless game.
And, hey, if you do miss, your opponent’s field position sucks.
Leading by two touchdowns, OU got the ball back at its own 27 with 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Sooners had scored a TD on their previous possession by going 87 yards on 17 plays, including 10 runs, in the span of eight minutes. That was followed by a three-and-out by the Texas offense.
Everything about the situation suggested that the Texas defense was withering in the heat of the Cotton Bowl. The Longhorns had defended more than 60 plays by that point, and the offense failed to give the D much of a breather. Time to grind the UT defense down to a nub, right?
Instead of pounding the rock on the ground, OU threw four straight times. The net effect of the drive: four plays, nine total yards, one minute and 51 seconds off the clock.
To be fair, you can make a solid case for Riley’s strategy here. It’s clearly too early in the game to bleed the clock. Moreover, a defense trailing by two touchdowns is going to come hard to stop the run. Why not use that aggressiveness in your favor?
OU starts out doing just that. On the first play of the drive (above), the offense comes out in 11 personnel with one RB and one H-back. The call is play-action building off a split zone run concept. Initially, H-back Jeremiah Hall flows toward the wide side of the field – in the opposite direction of the offensive line’s movement – to seal off the backside defender. Spencer Rattler fakes a handoff to running back Marcus Major running left to the short side of the field, which gets the defensive line and linebackers flowing that direction. Rather than hold his block, Hall immediately leaks out to the flat on the wide side. Rattler rolls right setting up an easy toss to Hall, who turns upfield for a 14-yard gain.
Then things start to break down.
On the following play, the first of the fourth quarter (above), it looks as though Rattler gets a check from the sideline. Again, Rattler fakes a handoff to Major running to the short side of the field, with the OL blocking GT counter. Rattler fires the ball left for a screen pass to Theo Wease, who is dropped immediately for a four-yard loss.
The main problem in this case is that OU’s typically reliable screen game stinks this year, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to Riley. It has been particularly ineffective when asking slot receiver Drake Stoops to lead the way as a blocker. The Texas CB reacts quickly to what he’s seeing, and Stoops has little chance to stop him from flying at Wease. Not to mention, the run fake doesn’t even phase the nickelback, who would be in position to clean up if needed.
The loss on first down already put the series on life support, which makes second down an odd time for a second consecutive screen (above). This time, Hall lines up in the slot to throw the block to spring Wease. Nevertheless, the Longhorns snuff out the play again, stopping Wease two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Reiterating: The next successful screen this year’s team runs will be its first. Why go to that well again?
On third and a mile, Rattler throws a ball at Wease’s feet around the line of scrimmage on a mesh route, forcing OU to punt.
So what can be learned in this case? Perhaps Riley got “too cute by half.” The first screen burned him by putting his offense in a tough down-and-distance scenario. Doubling down on arguably the most impotent part of the Sooner offense only made matters worse. In the process, OU missed out on an opportunity for its offensive line to batter Texas’ defensive front and potentially send the Longhorns down for the count.
Bear in mind that later in the game, Riley called a reverse to Wease on third down that was nailed for a loss of 10 yards. It set off a chain reaction of events that gave the Longhorns good field position and helped fuel their late rally.
It would be a shame to see Riley cast aside the aggressive mindset that has marked his ascent up the coaching ranks. Still, he may want to work on controlling the urge to always finish with flair.