Time Of Possession
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I haven't ranted in a while. With so many things going on around here (the launch of the subscriptions, the launch of the podcasts, the launch of my wife and I from St. Louis to Champaign), I haven't just pulled out my laptop and ranted about something. Today's topic: T.O.P.
Let's start here: Time Of Possession is not a statistic that matters. It doesn't specifically tell you who is going to score more points. Let's discuss it with the other football first to just get a general overview.
I'm an Aston Villa fan, and when Aston Villa was on it's way to relegation in 2016, finishing dead last in the EPL, some of the possession statistics were just alarming. There were 80/20 games where the opponent would just sit out top and pass the ball back and forth like it's 1975 college basketball and they're holding for the last shot. Villa basically got to this "we're never going to score, so we might as well park everyone deep and try to get through 90 minutes without letting anyone score" spot and it was so hard to watch. There was maybe one chance at a counterattack per game. I feel like the theory was "we suck, but if we can just score on one counter and then park the bus, maybe we can win 1-0?"
It didn't work, obviously. In 38 matches, Villa scored 27 goals and conceded 76 (-49!!). My kickball team finished in 20th in the EPL, SEVENTEEN POINTS out of 19th.
OK I got a little distracted there. My point is that with soccer, sometimes it's almost a strategy. OK, fine, we'll give them possession and we'll counter. There's thought behind it. We'll be difficult to score on, and while our opponent is getting frustrated, maybe we can sneak an attack or two. It didn't work for Villa, but for some clubs, it's an option, especially when playing a superior opponent.
For college football, it's a strategy, but never a "fine, we'll let them have possession" strategy like soccer. This is probably more of a Big Ten thing than an any other conference team thing (in the Big 12 it's just "make sure we have the ball last"), but some teams in the Big Ten look to wear you down to the point where you're useless in the fourth quarter. Long, methodical drives, you're defense tires, and at a certain point you have nothing left.
I've already referenced this once since the game, but on Thursday night I referenced Time Of Possession in my prediction post:
I can also see Wisconsin just kind of doing their Wisconsin thing, time-of-possession climbs to 38 minutes, and our defense is worn down so they just put us in a fourth-quarter chokehold and ease us to the floor.
The key to the whole thing is that right there: a defense worn down. That's the entire point behind this brand of football. I always use Super Bowl XXXIV as my example here.
There's a famous clip (famous to St. Louis Rams fans) where defensive end Kevin Carter takes himself out of the 2000 Super Bowl with 26 seconds remaining and the Titans driving. I tried to find the video, and I can't find it, but here's a link to the quote in an article:
Then comes the 26-second mark and a request from left defensive end Kevin Carter. "YOU WANT OUT OF THE GAME WITH 26 SECONDS TO GO?" Vermeil yells.
If you remember that Super Bowl, the Rams scored right after the two minute warning to take a 23-16 lead. Tennessee got the ball back, drove the length of the field, and Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson at the one yard line on the final play of the game. The Rams had led the game 16-0, but a comeback was brewing. Why? Because the Rams defense was tiring. They had shut out the Titans through nearly three quarters (the Titans' first points came on the final play of the 3rd quarter), but the Rams were greatest-show-on-turfing and the Titans were grinding it out with Eddie George. And the Rams defense began to approach its tipping point.
You see this all the time in NFL games. I referenced it on the podcast I just posted. It's 13-10 at the end of the third quarter and then the final score is 27-24 because the defenses reach a tipping point and what was a three-and-out in the first quarter becomes "can either defense stop either offense?" in the fourth. Look at Arizona-Seattle on Monday night - fourth quarter and overtime, both offenses moving the ball at will. All defenses have a breaking point - all Kevin Carters, All-Pro defensive ends - reach a point where they have to take themselves out (while offensive linemen, who don't have to turn and chase the ball on every play, just keep chuggin' along with more left in the tank). I mean, college football changed the overtime rules because some games were going to seven overtimes because at that point of exhaustion, defenses had zero chance of stopping a team needing to gain 25 yards.
That's how Super Bowl 34 played out. A shutout for 44 minutes for the Rams defense but Tennessee was dominating Time Of Possession. Once that dam broke, Tennessee marched right down the field on their final four drives. Thankfully, the final drive ended one yard short. Had that game gone to overtime and Tennessee won the toss, it was over. The Rams defense had nothing left. Time of possession finished 36:26 to 23:34 in favor of Tennessee.
I always thought the game plan by Tennessee that day was brilliant. Let the Greatest Show do their thing, try to hold them to field goals, and just keep grinding. Give Eddie George the ball 30 times and slowly wear down the Rams defense (and keep the Greatest Show off the field). Had there been 10 more seconds, it probably would have resulted in an overtime win.
This style of ball is used a lot in the Big Ten. Last year alone, Wisconsin was first nationally in Time Of Possession (out of 130 teams), Minnesota was 4th, Indiana was 7th. Illinois was 128th.
128th out of 130 teams at 26:02. The defense had to be on the field for 34 minutes per game last year. That's, uh, suboptimal. And a thing I wrote about all offseason when referencing this offense.
I mean, just look at the last two Big Ten games (last year and this year). Northwestern leads Illinois 17-10 going into the fourth quarter. The Illinois defense rolls over and it's touchdown, touchdown, 29-10 win for Northwestern in a game where Time Of Possession was 41:48 to 18:12. (Heh. 1812. I totally should have reference The War Of 1812 in my article about that game. Title: Don't Give Up The Ship.)
Yet we continually give up the ship. TOP on Friday night: 43:28 to 16:32. Was there a war in 1632?
As you may know, I reference this stat a lot on Twitter. In fact, during the Wisconsin win last season, I pointed to TOP and said that we were getting close to the breaking point already (meaning we wouldn't be able to hang on). Here's that tweet mid-third quarter in 2019:
Time of possession now 24:05~10:45 Wisconsin. So we kinda know where this goes from here.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) October 19, 2019
Great effort by the defense up until now though. The way I sometimes look at it: if we had an offense that could stay on the field for 35 minutes, there's your Wisconsin total yards/points.
We were able to overcome that with two fourth quarter turnovers (Hansen forced-fumble, Adams INT). But that can't be expected. It would be better to, you know, have a really fresh defense in the fourth quarter.
Now, before I get to my main point (we're not at the main point yet?), I should say that defenses aren't innocent in this statistic. If you can't stop your opponent on third down then Time Of Possession is going to get out of hand. But when it comes to this specific topic (teams wearing down and having nothing left in the tank), quite often it's as simple as "the offense couldn't sustain any drives and the defense had to go right back out there time and time again". Like Friday night.
On yesterday's Zoom press conference, Rod Smith addressed it. Here's the question from Scott Beatty of WDWS and Rod Smith's answer:
Scott Beatty: "Time Of Possession. I know it's not everything - the score is - but where in your offense, given how you like to play and the pace and all of that, would Time Of Possession need to be?"
Rod Smith: "Well, I don't know where it needs to be. I never really had that or thought of that as the end-all, be-all. The reality comes down to this: are you scoring points? If you're not scoring points, then time of possession probably does matter quite a bit. If you are scoring points then, I don't know if... I think that kind of is what it is. But if you're not scoring points then it is going to be an issue, obviously because you're not taking care of the football, you're not moving the chains, you're allowing your defense to play on the field too much at times. So yeah, I hear you, but no, I don't have an earmarked time as far as what we need to have. It's not a ball-control offense - it's a "put a players out in space and try to create matchups and big plays". So it's all about rhythm, it's all about getting first downs, and first downs lead to touchdowns. That's what it's all about."
I don't view football like everyone. I have all those silly rules in my head about "footballing" and field position and special teams and all that. So I'll just say it this way: maybe it's only me, but there are massive alarm bells going off in my head when I hear that. Altgeld chimes.
I understand that the "reality" is scoring points. Football games are still decided by who has the most points. But to basically say that scoring points will solve everything scares me to death. Specifically, "if you're not scoring points, then time of possession probably does matter quite a bit" made me sit up straight in my chair. I get the sentiment - more or less "if we scored on every drive nobody would care what the time of possession was so we just need to score more" - but my obvious response to a quote like that (and, if these press conferences were in person and not "one question at a time in order" with my question having already been asked, a thing I would have asked directly), is "if you acknowledge that Time Of Possession does matter quite a bit, knowing that Wisconsin will be focused on it, why wave it off with "we'll just score points and then we're fine"?
I'll make a clumsy basketball comparison and then I'll bring it back around. Any coach named "Bennett" (Dick at Wisconsin, Tony at Virginia) tries to grind you down. This is not news. Virginia won a national title as the slowest team (tempo-wise) in the country. I get that basketball and football are very different (the shot clock being the biggest reason that basketball possession and football possession can't be directly compared), but still, imagine Brad Underwood approaching the Virginia game with "we just need to score - as long as we score like we usually do, we'll be fine". My response would be this: "Uh, that's not the point. They're going to try to specifically slow you down and play you differently than your other opponents. What will you do in response?"
Wisconsin football is, in some ways, Virginia basketball. Rod said it himself - "ball control". It's the same concept as Wisconsin basketball under Dick Bennett. Slow, methodical offense that frustrates you, stingy, right-to-the-edge-of-fouling-you-every-possession defense. And you have to acknowledge it or you're toast.
So when Rod says, and I quote, "it's all about rhythm", I agree. To which I would answer "and Wisconsin knows it, and they're trying to disrupt it, and you have to specifically gameplan for it". Again, the point of how Wisconsin does things is to, as I said Thursday night, "put you in a fourth quarter chokehold" once your defense crosses the 30-minutes-on-the-field mark. They're honestly trying to score in less time early in the game. They know that somewhere around the 25 minute mark is the magic number to where your defense is operating at 94% resistance one drive and then 81% resistance and then 56% resistance (and at 44 minutes, maybe 12% resistance). If they're up big like they were Friday night, won't matter. If they're not, you're about to get run over. (You know, unless they turn the ball over twice.)
That's "ball control". That's the whole point. And when you enter a fight like that, you have to approach it differently than when you're playing Purdue. And you have to approach it differently both on offense and on defense. At least if I was Lovie, that's what I'd ask Rod to do.
It's not like Illinois isn't trying to get first downs. I mean, it's not like every college football team isn't trying to score on every drive. But when you enter a rock fight like a Wisconsin game - please note that they were throwing the ball AT WILL and put up only 21 passes vs. 54 runs - then in my mind, it must be acknowledged by the offense. I think you do need to have an "earmarked time as far as what we need to have". I don't think you can enter a game like that just thinking "we'll try to score more points than them".
I feel like I need to emphasize this one more time. Wisconsin was putting up 12 yards per pass and 3.4 yard per rush. Every Big 12 coach looks at the end of the first quarter and says "we're scoring 70 tonight". Yet Wisconsin ran it 54 times and threw it 21 times. Why? Because their whole plan is the eventual chokehold. They've been doing it for nearly 30 years.
I remember Pat Fitzgerald (gross) referencing this stuff after a Northwestern win over Illinois. I believe it was 2013? Maybe 2015? If I can find the quote I'll come back and link it here later. He basically said "we could see them tiring and we knew how the fourth quarter would go". The whole game, regardless of the score, the plan was "make sure Illinois' defense is exhausted in the fourth quarter".
The Rod Smith quotes above suggest that this isn't even a consideration for Illinois. And when you're playing Wisconsin, I feel like that's a massive issue. I would hope that Lovie is getting the offensive and defensive coaches together to discuss contingency plans. If they dominate the tempo, what do we do? These quotes seem to say that the answer is "just try to score some points".
My answer? I almost never turn to "the coach should have done ~this~" in my writing, but nobody has read this far so I'll indulge myself. Here's what I would have done:
Accept that it's going to be a ball-control game and start thinking about when you're snapping the ball. Just accept that it's Wisconsin, in Madison, and they're going to grind you. The second snap of the game (the Epstein fumble) was snapped with 32 seconds on the play clock. Once more, the second play left 32 seconds on the play clock. Going to "tempo" on the first series against Wisconsin had to make their coaches laugh out loud. That's Illinois saying "we know you've been doing this for 30 years, and Chip Kelly-like tempo is the number one thing that would help you achieve that goals in this game, but we're going to do it anyway because we think we can dictate how this game will go".
Instead of tempo, get in a rock fight. This does not mean "stick to the run", but maybe don't try to pick up a first down on first down. Sure, take what the defense is giving you, and if Epstein on the sideline is there, hit it, but be completely conscious of Time Of Possession. Purdue isn't going to try to force your defense to be on the field for 38 minutes, so play them accordingly, but Wisconsin will, so play them accordingly. When you're playing Wisconsin, especially on the road, just accept it - you have to acknowledge they way they football.
That doesn't change much about how the defense approaches the game. Force a punt, get off the field. Lovie's defense only did that four times. But it does change how the offense approaches a game, and it was fairly obvious before Rod even spoke yesterday that the offense didn't acknowledge it. How do I know? I saved the kicker for last. You're going to really regret giving up on this post halfway through.
Time Of Possession for Illinois drives in the first half:
If you're acknowledging Time Of Possession on offense, and you're going into the game expecting a rock fight, then there's no way you'd ever have four drives under a minute in one half. EVER. Even if they're 3-and-out drives, you can at least stretch them to two minutes. When I say that Wisconsin coaches were laughing out loud, that's what I mean. Their number one goal in the first half is to make sure our drives take as little time as possible, and we played directly into their hands.
Again, my point is not "had we stretched out drives we totally would have won". No. We would have lost. They moved the ball, we didn't, the end.
I'm simply saying that the offensive coordinator saying "I never really thought of that as the end-all, be all" scares me. Especially with a "keep things in front of you and try to take the ball away on their 14-play drive" defensive scheme. I feel like the gameplanning meetings MUST include offensive acknowledgement of Time Of Possession leading up to a game against a Wisconsin, and these quotes tell me that it wasn't even acknowledged.
Of course, I didn't need the quotes. We snapped the second snap with 32 seconds on the play clock. We announced from the first drive that we were going to dictate tempo.
And we got destroyed.