When does a good play become a bad play in a college football game? When does time and distance become more important than the score? How difficult is it for a coach to put his players in one mindset for 95 percent of a game, then possibly reverse it for the final five percent?
Those questions were asked of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright in response to two plays over the past few weeks that would have been considered wonderful decisions by the players who made them in the second quarter of a game, but that hurt their team's chances to win late in the fourth quarters of eventual losses that they owned the lead at the time of those decisions.
The first has been dissected hundreds of times over the past six weeks. Gifted Auburn running back Tank Bigsby went out of bounds inside the final two minutes of Auburn's eventual four-overtime loss to Alabama, a move that stopped the clock with 1:35 to go in regulation. The Tide scored the tying touchdown with 24 seconds left in regulation, time that would not have been there had Bigsby stayed in bounds on his run.
The second has been mentioned far less, and certainly had less impact on Kentucky's 20-17 Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa on New Year's Day, but was a second example of how sometimes the popular play is not the right play.
With 3:59 to go, UK trailing 17-13 and facing a fourth-and-10 at the Iowa 46, Hawkeyes defensive back Jermari Harris intercepted a pass 12 yards down the field. In truth, the defensive player should always knock the ball to the ground rather than intercepting it, since an incompletion brings the ball back to the original line of scrimmage, where it would go to the defensive team on downs.
But such decisions become magnified late in a tight game, so much so that even Kentucky coach Mark Stoops mentioned it after the Wildcats rallied for a 20-17 win.
Said Stoops afterward: "When we went for it on fourth down ... fortunately for us, that ball was intercepted and saved us about 12 yards, and defensively, we got that stop."
Said Wright of both plays, "Anytime you can show your players examples like that, it helps. That's the beauty of television and social media and computers. You have a lot more access to those types of plays than you used to. Hopefully, when you can show them a play like that in a big game, it sticks around a little longer."
Because Bigsby's play occurred in the Iron Bowl, and within a state where the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is at full-bore 365 days a year, his mistake will stick around a lot longer, whether fair or not.
But Wright says the interception from the Iowa-Kentucky game is also a scenario that's often discussed during practice.
"It doesn't come up as much, but it does come up," he said. "It's hard for these kids sometimes because it's in their heads to make a play, to force a turnover. But you also need them to know that an incompletion there can sometimes be better than an interception."
Bigsby's mistake is easy to understand both ways. Players routinely run out of bounds to save clock, and most of the time, any coach wants more time. But with a late lead in a game where your defense is playing as well as Auburn's was that day against the Tide, you want the clock to run out as swiftly as possible.
The Iowa-Kentucky scenario is a little more nuanced.
"It's field position," Wright said. "Getting the ball near midfield in that situation instead of your own 36 is huge. You can open up your whole playbook from there. On your 36, you have to be a little more careful. A turnover there can be really costly."
Not that these will be the only scenarios Wright will again discuss with his team and coaching staff — as he has many times before — as the Mocs prepare for their first normal spring under him after heavy rains washed out his first spring in 2019, COVID took his second and the school's decision — at Wright's urging — to cancel last year's odd spring season took his third.
One other will be the bizarre ending to Sunday's Kansas City-Cincinnati NFL game at Cincy, where Bengals coach Zac Taylor brazenly eschewed a field goal inside the final minute, going for it on fourth down in a tie game, presumably to keep dangerous Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes from getting a chance to stage a last-second rally, despite KC being out of timeouts.
When Cincy threw incomplete on fourth down, it appeared Taylor would have the wrath of the entire Bengals Nation crash down upon him, but an interference call bailed him out, Cincinnati kicked a field goal with no time on the clock and headed off to its first playoff game in more than five years.
"I would have kicked the field goal earlier and taken my chances, but Mahomes has the ability to beat you in that situation," said Wright. "We've actually talked about falling down short of the end zone in that situation to kill time. But it's a tough call. You certainly don't want to mess around there and not score."
Coaching has always been tough, and the advancements in television and such — more games on TV than ever before, highlights available 24 hours a day at the touch of a computer or phone keypad — have only made it tougher.
"We spend so much time on those situations in practice," said Wright. "Then it happens in a game and you cringe. It's crazy."
It's football, where an oblong ball, no matter how hard you work to prevent it, can take some of its most unpredictable bounces at the worst of times.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.