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Texas-UCLA Football Revisited: 4:17, Burning Clock and Game Theory

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I want to expand on the "crazy" Longhorn coaching decision to attack UCLA's defense with 4:17 left on the clock in the 4th quarter using a fast-paced offense.  Specifically, I want to make the case for the Texas staff, factoring in game context, tactics, the real vs. perceived ability to burn clock and the interrelationship between tactics and game math.

Game Theory & Hindsight

When Texas got the ball at 4:17 with a four point lead and chose to go "tempo", the ensuing three and out and minimal clock burn was widely panned on the web and in the traditional media.  Of course, it didn't matter.  UCLA scored in about nine seconds on a punt return followed by a good play call against tendency.

Clearly, Texas getting the ball back then with 3:00 left was a huge positive.

Now forget that.  Knowing hindsight outcomes isn't necessarily relevant - in fact it can be obfuscating - even if it supports my argument.

My contention is that our coaches have zero to apologize for and anyone who characterizes their decision as "crazy", "stupid" or "inexcusable" isn't demonstrating much analytical rigor.  If you think it's a coin flip as to which tactics to adopt, fine by me.  That's defensible.  I will contend, however, that our choices gave us the best chance of winning the game.

This is pure game theory - the intersection of mathematical probabilities and uncertain human tactics that change with these probabilities on the fly.


It's key.  UCLA had three timeouts.  The college play clock stops with first downs.  There was 4:17 left on the clock.

That is an eternity.

4:17 is clock burn no-man's land and UCLA's ability to call timeouts negates any meaningful clock burn on ANY three and out.

So if you advance that Texas "should've just burned the clock down" as some blanket banality for what to do at the ends of games, you can't participate in the conversation.  You are now Dan Dierdorf.  You are now Joe Morgan. "The team that scores the most and plays the best defense will win this game, folks!"

Meaningful game context is whistling right over your head.

Of course we want to burn clock.  Burning meaningful clock in that game context is only possible by acquiring more sets of downs. Full stop.  In the formula of clock burning, the time spent on three individual plays is secondary at that juncture to the necessity of acquiring more plays to run.

The most important thing the Texas offense could do was maximize its chances of acquiring more downs. Flipping the field or a score would be a nice side benefit.  We were not going to acquire more downs running down clock (because we couldn't - UCLA would call timeouts on defense) by going with a full house backfield and pushing the Bruins around.  Because - watch the game and look at our OL.  And think about how timeouts work.

So what do we do?


Texas had just scored a touchdown on a legitimate drive running a hurry-up, no huddle offense. The key play on the drive was a 31 yard Johnathan Gray run where Kent Perkins sealed the edge exposing a giant open plain because UCLA got caught in the wrong defense. They didn't line up right. The drive was not built on a lucky play, a miracle catch or a freakish display of athleticism. UCLA had some trouble dealing with the HUNH.

Does this fact influence future tactical adoption?  You bet.


Does the Texas offense have the best chance of acquiring more downs (the necessary precondition of REAL clock-burning) by laying it up, milking clock (which we couldn't have - see timeouts and time remaining) and letting UCLA get lined up correctly?  We actually don't know.  There is no definitive answer to this question.  Data sets are too small, defenses adjust - it's conjecture.  However, most in-game tactical football is built on small data sets that you hit harder to see if they mean something.  So we went with what we saw on the previous drive - specifically, UCLA not lining up correctly on a couple of big plays, Tyrone's overall comfort in tempo and our success in scoring a touchdown.

If you believe this is "crazy" - I'm at a loss for words.  Actually, I'm not.  I'm at a loss for PG-13 words.

In my estimation, continuing what worked - and seemed to give UCLA some problems on a previous drive - is sound.

Because our ultimate goal of burning clock is a contingent variable ENTIRELY PREDICATED ON OFFENSIVE SUCCESS.

So Why Are We Second Guessing?

  1. Texas lost.  Process is ignored, results are blindly asserted as "the bottom line."
  2. Me Texas fan.  Me lost.  Me mad.  Me lash out.
  3. Our tactic "failed."  After a 5 yard run on 1st down (exactly what we wanted), we lost 5 on second down. The OL got blown up.  No tactic succeeds in burning clock with three and out.  Are critics contending that the Texas OL dominates UCLA if we milk each down (we could actually only milk one down - those pesky three timeouts) and run power up their ass all day?
  4. Humans struggle with probability. Humans struggle with tactical thinking. When those things intersect, we can really struggle - particularly as probabilities change the tactics.
Final thoughts

Had Texas not converted on 4th and 7 (or whatever it was) in UCLA territory in the 1st half and UCLA followed up that failure with a TD drive, I can assure you that a significant portion of folks would be arguing that this proves the 4th down decision was "just not sound football."  

Gotta coffin corner that!  It was a defensive ballgame!  How can you put that on a young QB?

Even though going for it on 4th and makable on the opponent's 35 yard line is about as sound as it gets.


Here's my plea: can we examine process and result with some context?  Bad process isn't vindicated by a lucky positive result.  Bad result shouldn't give a black eye to sound process.

This is a part of larger conversation that we'll be having all year.  So let's start it now.