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You be the coach: Should Cal have used their timeouts against Utah?

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Do you agree or disagree with Sonny Dykes's decision to play timeout-chicken with Kyle Whittingham and not call a timeout at the end of the game?

NCAA Football: Utah at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Berkelium97: I've been going back and forth on this one. The strategy worked, but that doesn't mean it was the right decision. If you had asked me a week ago if not using our timeouts on the goal line with under two minutes was the right decision, I would have vehemently disagreed. During the game, however, we had surprising success with the run defense. Looney was consistently getting a push up the middle against Utah's backup center and we had held them to about 3.25 yards per carry. Run defense gets a little easier on the goal line because there's very little vertical space on the field, so the safeties can get to the point of attack faster.

Still, what are the odds that Utah punches the ball into the end zone from the 9 with 2 minutes to go and 3 timeouts? Pretty high. Especially against a Cal defense that allows TDs on 70% of red zone trips. We had already surrendered 4 of 5 4th-and-shorts, so the likelihood of containing Utah seemed miniscule. Objectively, preserving the clock, giving the ball back to our offense, and trying to win the game on a long field goal with our excellent kicker seems like the better decision.

But subjectively, you can make the argument that putting the game on the defense's shoulders was a gamble worth making. This is a much-maligned defense and it could do wonders for their confidence to give them the opportunity to win the game. They were having their best game of the season (although that's admittedly not a tremendous compliment) and they had stopped Utah on 4th and 1 on their previous possession. Why not try to capitalize on that momentum?

So was it the right decision? Whether you think so probably depends on how you weight tangibles such as statistics and probabilities against intangibles such as confidence and momentum. Do I think it was the right decision? I still don't know. I'm just glad it worked.

Avinash: I don't think there's a more right answer. It worked out, but we were extremely fortunate too. A bunch of things had to go right, like the Pac-12 refs awarding Kyle Whittingham a timeout he didn't want to call, Troy Williams whiffing on one of the easiest out routes you can ever throw, and the Utah dudes totally forgetting their blocking assignments on the final play. Good on Cal for winning but Utah lost it just as much.

It's a really tough situation. If we do call our timeouts, if the plays unfold similarly, Utah likely still gets a first down on that penalty, can run down the clock to zero, and get one extra play (it was 3rd and goal when time expired). By not calling timeout, the running clock probably pressured Utah coaches and players in a way that would not have occurred with extra delays. They called some weird plays on that drive and ran far less than they should have (even at under 4 rushing ypc, with four tries that's more than enough to pick up nine yards). And as good as the Cal offense has been all season, they'd averaged one good drive in three the entire game. It was probably best to just ride it out and live with the results.

Also, Utah is one of the worst red zone offenses in the nation (107th in turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns), so if there was any that that was going to struggle against even modest Cal defense, this was the one.

I should also point out Cal called their timeouts in the 2010 Washington game and lost.

Nick Kranz: I've already made my argument in the Post Game Thoughts column. But for the sake of this argument, a quick summary: There's zero non-intangible downsides to using those timeouts to try to get an extra possession. The decision didn't end up mattering this time around, and Cal got away with it. They might not get away with it next time.

LeonPowe: I was feeling one way about it, but I read something in the instareaction thread that changed my mind. Shout-out to poster Cameron Fielder who wrote about it that made a lot of sense to me - coaching is not only about down and situation, but also realizing the moment.

Here's the post:

" . . . If you spread out the energy of the stadium over a longer period of time that energy will be diluted. There was something about the dramatic crescendo of the moment that Dykes sensed was more important than hedging, and he was right. He was right.

You can say he was objectively wrong, but I’ll say that the outcome showed that being subjectively right was objectively right. He was coaching in THAT moment. He was not coaching in some Platonic aggregate or average of other moments. If the game was in Salt Lake City he would have taken the time-outs. If the d hadn’t bowed up earlier that quarter and stopped Utah on 4th deep in Cal territory, maybe he would have called the time-outs.

There was some sense, maybe hard to justify according to game-theory, that this was the way to win the game. Right after the earlier stop the sideline reporter quoted Cal defensive guys, "We’re gonna have to do that again." Football coaches hedging enough to look smart in a losing effort is hackneyed. It’s refreshing to have a coach who believes passionately enough in a winning effort.

You can say that the timeouts would have cost Cal nothing, but that’s on paper. That’s theoretical. The studies are out there: teacher expectation is a huge factor in determining student outcomes. You can argue that Dykes was wrong, but can you concede that confidence is a real commodity? That having trust and confidence can improve odds of success?”

This is a better answer than I could write.

TwistNHook: Actually, another poster wrote something even more intelligent on this. If the point of the TOs is to keep more time on the clock after the Utah Offense scores. So, if your plan is essentially dependent on the Utah offense scoring, you might as well let them score and maximize your time. Just let them immediately score and have the most time. So, the question is to a certain extent moot.

Dykes should not have taken a single time out, the question is whether he should have tried on defense or not.

Nick Kranz: The plan isn't dependent on Utah scoring. Either Utah scores, and you have time to counter OR Utah doesn't score and you win anyway.

TwistNHook: Yes, so isn't the point of using the timeouts to maximize time after Utah scores?

Nick: For the sake of having a fully informed conversation, here's what's in my Monday column:

There isn’t an argument in favor of Sonny Dykes’ end-game timeout usage that isn’t post-hoc, results-over-process rationalization. Full stop.

Let’s set the stage. Utah has 1st and goal from the 9 yard line with ~2:00 on the clock. They have just gone 40 yards in 5 plays. Both teams have all of their timeouts left. As a consequence, Utah has their entire goal line playbook open.

The upside of using your timeouts is that you earn yourself an extra possession - probably about 1:30 of clock - in case your opponent takes the lead. The downside of using your timeouts is . . . well, there isn’t a meaningful downside. The only arguments in favor of not using timeouts are ‘intangible’ arguments. “The defense got the stop because Dykes showed faith in them.” “Utah panicked because they expected us to use timeouts and then they lost control of the clock.” I find neither of those arguments convincing*.

As it turns out, the entire debate was rendered somewhat academic by the 4th down pass interference called on Marloshawn Franklin. If Cal had used their timeouts, Utah could have used their new series of downs to run the clock down anyway. But anticipating an unlikely, 4th down, automatic 1st down defensive penalty isn’t really the point. The point is that Cal had free game leverage available to them, and decided to pass up on that free leverage. Thankfully, it didn’t bite them this time, but I’m worried that everybody took the wrong lesson from the entire situation.

*Unrelated to the timeout strategy discussion, but kudos to the noisy Cal crowd and the Pac-12 refs, who were the ones who DID cause some measure of angst for the Utah sideline.

Nik Jam: No, I was screaming about it the whole time in my little bubble in section R. It obviously worked out, but I was incorrectly assuming an inevitable score. It kinda worked out also in the sense that, with the defensive pass interference, Utah could have ran out the clock anyway, as Cal probably would have used all 3 timeouts prior to that.

Nick: If Utah scores, yes. If Utah doesn't score, then the worst case scenario is that Cal is punting the ball back to Utah with ~1:00on the clock and zero timeouts. One first down and the game is over. That's a minor risk to take to maintain the leverage of another possession if Utah is able to get their touchdown.

TwistNHook: Why does Utah have 0 timeouts if Cal is the one taking the timeouts? Didn't they have a full set of them?

Nick: If Cal uses their timeouts on the goal-to-go plays, then Utah keeps their 3 timeouts to use to stop the clock when they turn the ball over to Cal's offense. Hypothetically speaking, of course, Cal would thus need to get a first down to fully run out the clock.

Piotr Le: As the clock started to build down I realized it was the same strategy as HC Bill Belichick used in the XLIX SB where he let the clock run against the Seahawks. In the post-game analysis of the game some analysts agreed that the since BB did not call the timeouts it forced Russell Wilson, OC Bevell, and HC Carroll to come-up with plays in a hurry without time to prep. And as they say “Butler did it, in the end zone, with a pick.”

I think there is emotional logic that comes with the call there to not go to TOs. And it wasn’t like HC Dykes put on his Riverboat glasses and gambled. He talked to DC Kaufman, OC Spavital, and the defensive players who told him “We got this.” Each one of them affirmed the decision to not take the TOs. A few plays later the defensive leader James Looney made the play of the game against Utah’s RB Moss who cut to the wrong side of the field, away from his pulling Guard, and was met with all 300lbs of James Looney.

I never coached football at any level, and I am sure most of the people crowing over the call not to take the TOs haven’t either. Maybe the last minutes and the lack of TOs caused the freshman RB to mix-up plays, maybe it was the noise at Memorial that caused the Utes to have a miscommunication on the play, maybe it was neither and we just got lucky. Who knows.

But we won, and that is nice.

HydroTech: I wish Cal would win without these sort of controversies because these arguments and discussions are exhausting. For the record, I would have taken TOs if I was the head coach but I can understand and respect Sonny's decision not to do so. Sonny had 100% faith in his defense to stop Utah from scoring. That being the case, then correct way to play out the final two minutes is to not take any timeouts.

By not using any of your own timeouts, you force Utah to use up all of their timeouts. Utah is then at the mercy of the clock, and must score before time expires. This is exactly what Sonny did. He played it 100% correct if you can accept that having 100% faith in your defense was the right decision. But it's that "having 100% faith in the defense" which so many Cal fans cannot agree with. Sonny believed in his team. And while I would have taken timeouts myself, I'm wondering if more of us need to believe in this team ourselves.

boomtho: 100% disagree, I thought they were horrible decisions that solidified (further) that Sonny is a pretty terrible time/game manager. The purist in me is almost annoyed that bad process was rewarded by good results.

It's very awesome that we won and this could be a key catalyzing moment that propels the team further as we inch closer to the backloaded half of the schedule - so I'm very happy for the team and the fans. Just think it was a poor series of decisions that didn't maximize our chance to win.

ragnarok: I agree with a lot of what has been said, and won't rehash the same arguments. For the record, I was yelling the stands, confused as to why Sonny didn't start using his timeouts at the 2-minute mark, because I a) saw no downside to it, and b) didn't trust our defense to come up with four defensive stops with goal to go, let alone seven.

One potential factor that I haven't seen mentioned is that, by letting the clock run down and time being a factor, you *might* force Utah to pass the ball when it's pretty clear that they'd much rather run it. I think the only time that actually was a factor was the second-to-last play, where it's an obvious passing down with 7 seconds left because you basically get an extra shot at the end zone, whereas running the ball ends the game either way.

To sum up, I think it's the wrong call strategically, and Sonny got away with it, but from a psychological, putting trust in your players moment, it was a huge lift for the defense, and might end up paying dividends later on this year.