Good And Bad Gambles

Joe Robbins

Why didn't USF run more time off the clock when they had the chance?

We're all still absorbing last night's exciting and encouraging, but ultimately frustrating, 23-20 loss to UCF. The Bulls played well enough to win that game; UCF certainly played poorly enough to lose it. But I can't escape the feeling that USF hurt their own chances with some questionable decision-making at some key moments -- especially concerning -- gulp -- clock management.

I want to compare two decisions in the second quarter, both of which backfired on USF, but were ultimately very different kinds of gambles.

Midway through the quarter, UCF had already turned the ball over three times. USF had a 6-3 lead and was deep in UCF territory. Despite the turnovers, UCF had been moving the ball with ease when they had it. And at the time it seemed more like UCF's offense was shooting itself in the foot rather than USF's defense was playing well. Also, while the offense and Mike White were doing some good things, it wasn't yet clear that USF would match its level of performance in the Houston game.

On a third and short from the UCF 7 yard line, UCF bottled up Marcus Shaw, leading to 4th and 2 from the UCF 9. The Twitterverse was screaming for USF to go for it, but you could make a case for either approach here. Nine points wasn't going to be enough to win this game, to be sure, but the offense was still building confidence, this could be accepted as a positive result, and it denied UCF any momentum-shifting action (barring a blocked field goal).

On the other hand, you don't pull an upset of this scope three points at a time. You win it with bold plays, at USF has done so many times in the past. And we couldn't count on UCF to keep turning the ball over - we had to do more with these opportunities.

We all know what happened. Mike White never got the snap, and the play never had a chance. It was symbolic of this season's offensive frustration: even when it's playing well, it misfires at the worst possible moments.

People cited this as a key moment of the game, saying USF left three points on the board and so forth. Yes, that's true, but there was much to be gained by risking those three points. The prospect of a touchdown, and a 13-3 lead, would have hugely changed how the rest of the game played out. Just because a gamble didn't succeed, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad gamble.

On the other hand, why was USF throwing the ball while deep in their own end, late in the second quarter?

After the failed 4th down try, UCF took over and drove 92 yards for a touchdown, taking a 10-6 lead late in the half. Chris Dunkley returned the kickoff to the USF 19, with 1:22 to play in the half. USF had played pretty well, and would receive the ball to start the second half, but UCF had taken momentum. Surely you run a couple simple plays and call it a half, right?

Nope.

USF ran three pass plays, took a timeout(!) and ran only 37 seconds off the clock, while also losing yardage on a sack. They had to punt the ball back to UCF, who took over in Bulls territory with 45 seconds, and two timeouts -- because they only had to spend one while USF was on offense. UCF would convert this opportunity into three points, and USF was lucky it wasn't seven.

Fans bemoaned the three points USF didn't score on offense. But I think the greater crime were the three they yielded on defense, because there was nothing to be gained from the actions that led to it.

USF was deep in their own end, and had little chance of getting in field goal range. They continued to throw the ball even after taking a big sack. A turnover in that situation would have been devastating. Worst of all, the short pass plays they were calling wouldn't have moved the ball far enough, fast enough, anyway! I honestly couldn't tell if USF was trying to move the ball or not.

Why put your players in that situation? Why force your freshman QB to make tough throws that would done little good? Why force your defense to defend a short field under circumstances more difficult than they had to be?

And they did the same thing against SMU the week before. With 48 seconds left in the first half of a 3-0 game, USF ran three straight pass plays, one of which was kind of a scary throw. USF was a little further out from their end zone, but it was still a high risk/low gain possession.

Yes, we have in the past pilloried Skip Holtz for being too conservative. But there are times when playing your cards close to the vest is the correct move, and deep in your own end late in the second half with a freshman QB is one of those times. Taking risks is a necessity to success, and we genuinely applaud that, but there must be something to gain from it.

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