Michigan State beat upset No. 6 Wisconsin because Badgers coach Bret Bielema made what is fast becoming the most common coaching mistake in football. He called three timeouts in the last 42 seconds when Michigan State had the ball, assuming is defense was going to hold. He wanted his offense to have one more chance to score.
But when you don’t have the ball yet, your timeouts increase your opponent’s chances to score, not your own. I’ve written about this several times, most recently when the Falcons erred against the Bears in the season opener this year. For starters, if you don’t call timeout, they might just take a knee and let the clock run out, or at least call a running play so they don’t give you time to score if they throw an incomplete pass. But there is no need to worry about stopping the clock with a pass if they know you will just call timeout anyway. So, after the first timeout on second-and-20, the safe call for MSU was not to play it safe and to keep passing. And the Spartans got a first down. They did it again after another timeout on third-and-8 wth 30 seconds left. Bielema used his last timeout to set his defense with four seconds left before MSU’s game-winning Hail Mary.
By the way, what kind of coach scores to tie the game with 1:26 left and then immediately starts thinking of ways he can score again to win the game before it goes into overtime? That seems like way too much overconfidence.
How about thinking, instead, of ways to make sure the game goes into overtime?
Wisconsin lost because the game simply lasted too long in regulation. The three timeouts in the last 42 seconds was only part of it. It actually started after the Badgers faced first down at the 15 with 1:39 left. Russell Wilson threw a 13-yard pass to the 2 and then a 2-yard TD pass. The Badgers ran off only 13 seconds in two plays and tied the game.
It’s hard to turn down a touchdown, but why burn off only 13 seconds? The Badgers are the best running team in the Big Ten. They ran for 220 yards Saturday. They began that tying drive with back-to-back runs of 13 and 11 yards. Why not run again? At least once. That would have taken at least another 30 seconds off the clock.
I won’t second-guess that first pass, because it gained 13 yards to the 2. I would have run in that situation, but the pass brought a great result, better than you could have reasonable expected from a run. But first-and-goal from the 2 with more than 90 seconds left? Heck, I’d have run a quarterback sneak on the first play to get to the 1 and get the clock under a minute.
That was the safe play.
What Bielema chose was needlessly risky. Especially when the Badgers were on defense, but even when his calls paid off in a (briefly) game-tying score.