Urbanball: Clock and Ball Control

By Chad Peltier on August 20, 2012 at 6:00p

"Defense and special teams - long snappers and punting - ball control and winning - these are a few of my favorite things." 

Sweet helmet, yoResponsible for keeping the offense running quickly

This is not only a laundry list of things that Tressel might have drawn a heart around in his diary, but also the foundation of Urban's overall strategic approach to football.

As the official OSU website details:

One of only two active collegiate coaches with multiple BCS national championships and one of only 13 coaches in the last 50 years to win multiple national championships, Meyer's plan includes four tenets: play great defense; score in the red zone; dominate turnovers; and win the kicking game. His teams have succeeded in each of those competencies.

As Ivan Maisel described way back in 2003, "Tresselball depends on defense, regards field position as paramount and slowly, inevitably pressures the other team until it cracks." 

For all the similarities, there are nonetheless differences in clock management and tempo. This year's incarnation of Urban's offense is different even than his past offenses, starting with the no-huddle.

Doug Lesmerises writes: 

For instance, Meyer said he didn't want to go with an up-tempo offense at Florida because he wanted the leadership of Tebow and some of his veteran offensive linemen in the huddle.

"When you go up-tempo, you lose the leadership of the quarterback," Meyer said. "The whole intangible part of football, you lose that when you go fast, no-huddle. So I'm evaluating that now. I don't know."

However, Urban was convinced of the value of the no-huddle after visiting programs like Chip Kelly's Oregon offense over the year while working for ESPN. He then meshed his basic offensive tenets with those of his new offensive coordinator, Tom Herman.

"We want to be no-huddle, we want to be up-tempo and use that to our advantage. And we want to be balanced. We want to run the football first to set up the throwing game...I don't know if culture shock is the right word, but that's a major philosophical change that these kids need to understand and get used to," Herman said. "We could call the whole offense without saying a word if we wanted to in terms of the skill guys. It's our own sign language and the kids learn it and it doesn't change over their careers.

In truth, we are still likely to a see a huddle every now and then, depending on specific game situations. Braxton will have to look into his teammates' eyes and will them to convert 4th downs, just like Tebow before him. 

The no-huddle (with a conservative bit of huddling thrown in) is a logical next step for Urban's brand of power-run spread offense, but one that has never been seen at any of his previous stops and certainly never before at Ohio State. Instead, we'll have to look at Tom Herman's Iowa State offenses to understand the next evolution in Urbanball.  

Advantages of the No-Huddle 

The no-huddle offense is spreading rapidly across all levels of football because it offers several advantages over traditional forms of clock management: 1. it limits defensive substitution and movement/disguises; 2. it allows for more reps and greater efficiency in practice; and 3. (what we'll mainly be concentrating on here) it allows for the offense to set a flexible tempo.

Chris Brown details the most common advantage of the no-huddle: 

Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: It can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of some obvious, structural weakness.

While Ross expounds upon the second advantage

College teams have relatively little practice time.  The no-huddle allows an offense to get far more repetitions.  While in the past a team may run a play, then a coach would instruct one player with the ten other players standing around, no-huddle teams can repeatedly rep plays, with coaching corrections made when the second team takes its turn or in film study.

Water breaks are the only slow moments A rare slower moment in camp 

Related to the first advantage, the no-huddle also allows offenses to control the game's overall tempo. Ross writes that:

Coaches like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn's primary objective is to keep their offense relatively simple so that they can play at breakneck speed.  Malzahn, for instance, wants his offense to run 80 plays per game.  Their goal is to limit a defense's substitution, tire the on-field players, and eventually overwhelm the defense's capacity to adjust.

Catch up on everything you need to know ahead of the season kickoff.

While Oregon runs the no-huddle at breakneck speed in order to have the highest number of offensive snaps per game possible, that doesn't have to be so.

Urban's offense will similarly strive for a higher number of snaps per game, but it will sometimes go to the line of scrimmage after a play in the no-huddle, then control the clock by letting the play clock wind down as necessary. In short, the no-huddle allows the offense to methodically control the clock and set the tempo for the defense but doesn't require scoring drives to only last 30 seconds. 

what will it look like?

The most relevant quantitative metric of game tempo is the number of plays per game that an offense runs. As mentioned, Urban's previous offenses at Florida did not make extensive use of the no-huddle, but we can nonetheless provide some context using his previous offense, Herman's offenses at Iowa State, Oregon's offense, and Ohio State's Bollman-led squads: 

Year Ohio State Florida Iowa St Oregon
2011 62 61 79 78
2010 69 68 69 79
2009 68 66 69 68

In all honesty, there aren't very significant differences in average number of plays run per game until last season, when both Iowa State and Oregon average roughly 16 (or 25%) more plays per game.

Herman's Iowa State offense really sped up the tempo last season relative to his first two years as offensive coordinator. I'd guess this year's offense doesn't quite make it to 79 plays per game, but should nonetheless exceed any average during the Bollman years. 

However, the average number of plays per game doesn't take into account the time of possession. Many fans were concerned that the no-huddle offense would lower the offense's overall time of possession, limiting the defense's ability to rest between series. 

We can get a sense for this by comparing the average time of possession with the average number of plays run per game. Unfortunately we don't have access to number of possessions per game data - measuring the average time per each offensive series would be the most ideal:

Year ohio State Florida Iowa St Oregon
2011 30:40 28:18 29:08 24:59
2010 32:10 28:36 28:33 27:54
2009 31:29 30:53 28:17 26:18

No huddle doesn't necessarily have to mean hurry up: while Oregon certainly has a lower average time of possession per game than any of the other three schools, the 2011 Iowa State offense was able to run an astounding number of plays per game while still maintaining a high average time of possession. 

Furthermore, time of possession per game (again, this doesn't take into account the number of drives per game) isn't really correlated with winning at all. Commentators love to point out the average time of possession as an extremely important statistic, but only Ohio State averaged a greater time of possession than its opponents. 

Even more telling is the fact that the 2011 Iowa State offense averaged ten more plays per game than the 2010 offense, yet increased its average time of possession by 30 seconds per game. This is partly because more plays mean more overall time to run those plays, but it's in stark contrast with the 2011 Oregon offense, which averaged about 4 minutes less than Iowa State. 

John Reed, the author of Football Clock Management, has researched clock and ball control in the NFL and gotten it down to as much of a science as anyone studying the game. Reed's basic (and simple) philosophy is that "Teams that are ahead should play slower to run the clock down, while teams trailing should play faster to preserve time -- and increase their chances of coming back." 

The 2012 Buckeyes' no-huddle will still allow for this sort of variable clock control while still controlling the pace for defenses. I expect the 2012 offense to average somewhere around 70 plays per game while maintaining a similar time of possession. 


Comments Show All Comments

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Great piece, Chad. I'm excited to see the Urbz/Herman offense for many reasons, including how they will manage tempo. I see Urbz as a more complete coach than pure hurry-up guys like Kelly and Malzahn (although we do have to credit such guys for brilliant innovations, whereas Urbz is more the kind of guy who steals others' ideas and makes them better).
It doesn't surprise me that time of possession, when measured as a season-long aggregate, isn't correlated with winning. But, as you/John Reed point out, it can be very important on a situational basis.
For example, your team is down 14 at the half. The other team starts the 2H with a 14-play, 8-minute drive, culminated by a missed FG. So, no damage on the scoreboard, but we all know that such drives can be killers nonetheless.
I don't believe that Kelly/Malzah appreciate such scenarios, but even they do, they wouldn't coach them especially well.  

Crimson's picture

I think you need to look up "innovation."  Also, Kelly and Malzahn didn't create their systems from scratch.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I understand that, thanks. No one ever really invents anything purely from scratch. "There is nothing new under the sun."
It's more that invention/innovation/imitation are along a spectrum, constantly interacting with each other.
I hate to use Wiki, but this part is helpful here . . .

Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: "to change") rather than doing the same thing better.

Many "innovators" like Kelly and Malzahn are devoted to testing their different models almost for sake of the models, themselves - to prove that they developed something new and different and then get (at least some of the) the credit for it.
Urbz is devoted to improvements whether they are different, new, or not, and whether he gets the credit for supposedly developing an innovation.
But maybe you can enlighten me with your interpretation of these words/themes?

Crimson's picture

I agree with most of what you are saying.  The exception is that you leave Meyer out as an innovator.  An innovator is someone who takes something that has been invented, and uses it in a different way to make it work.  That is, glass and filaments are invented, but the light bulb is an innovation.
The main point though, is I believe if any of the three are innovators, it's Meyer.  He looked at the early spread, and he made his own (improved and changed -- see power run in a spread from earlier), and it was very successful.  He didn't just use someone else's spread (i.e. spread with a super fast RB or the air raid) and find the personel to make it work, he created his own version.
I would say that Kelly is an innovator (and I can't say much about Malzahn), but how much of an  innovation is running the hurry up for the whole game?  I think that Kelly is a really good coach, but if you're going to say that he's an innovator and Meyer isn't, then what gives Meyer the rings and not Kelly?  (This isn't a retorical device; I think that if you say that Kelly is a better innovator, then you're left saying Meyer is better at some fluff word.)
I appologize for the previous comment.  It came off much harsher than I intended.  I was surprised that you didn't think Meyer was an innovator, and this post is an explanation of that.  Note also that I know much more about Meyer because of this site than I do about Kelly and Malzahn.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Ooops, sorry. I should have know that's what you meant - not that you were trying to go Noah Webster on me. And you make several excellent points.
To make my point - which I agree is quite debatable - I put myself in the awkward position of describing innovation/innovators in an ambivalent, two-sided way. Normally, I'm all about innovation and innovators. And, no question, Urbz has been innovative. Maybe it's actually more fitting to describe Urbz as an innovator and Kelly, Malzahn (and maybe RR) as something else.
What I was roughly trying to get at, albeit poorly, is that maybe some innovators tend to pursue innovation as a means to an end (Urbz), while others approach the pursuit of innovation almost as an end in and of itself (Kelly, Malzahn, RR).
I get the feeling that Urbz would bring the 1972 Wood Hayes offense out of mothballs if he felt like it gave his team the best chance of winning a NCG, whereas Kelly/Malzahn/RR wouldn't be caught dead using such an outdated contraption.
Urbz is a complete coach who not only appreciates all the nuances of the game; he will try and do just about anything to win games.
I'm not convinced that Kelly/Malzahn/RR have as full an appreciation for the nuances (defense, special teams, field position, leadership, in-game adjustments, etc.) and/or that they can brings these out as well as Urbz; but also Kelly/Malzahn/RR are maybe as interested in their legacies as offensive innovators as they are in racking up trophies.
Urbz's crowning achievement is to have a stadium named after him. Malzahn's crowning achievement is to have an offensive scheme named after him.
Certainly, that's a gross, unfair characterization, to both Urbz and Kelly/Malzahn/RR. If one of the latter coaches, by freak of chance, were asked to take over the 2012 Bama team tomorrow, on short notice, they'd have enough good sense to know that Bama is a power team that couldn't be changed in a few weeks. They're not that locked into their models and all thee of them are fine, well-rounded fball coaches. However, at the end of the day, Urbz could be airlifted into Bama 2012 and maybe win a NCG; these other "innovators" would struggle mightily, IMO.

buckeye76BHop's picture

Nice article Chad...  I tend to think OSU will be ranked higher on offense this year due to the new coaches and same (but improved) players (minus the tatooed fat trimmed from last year, that won't amount to jack at the next level I might add).  These coaches have the "juice"...I can see a bright future for OSU if they all stay for a while.  Go Bucks!

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

rmichael.smith's picture

Excellent article.  However, the hurryup offense [HUO] has a few weaknesses, as does an undue commitment to it.  Remember the Rosebowl -Oregon game against the Buckeyes.  A decent, well conceived, defense simply kept Oregon's HUO off the field.   Thus, several observations:  The HUO can become gimmicky & disguise other flaws in an offense.  So long as the gimmick works during the season, even the offensive coaches don't spot em.  They buy into their own press clippings, exploiting one or two speed mismatches per game to run up the score.  Eventually, a good defensive reader spots the mismatches & has the defense to have put on a full-scale attack,  Then the HUO can't get past 3 & out.  Our defense stays fresh.  We sure did this to Oregon.
Another point:  Watching the Florida vs Michigan bowl game a few years back.  Percy Harvin was absolutely worn to a frazzel by the start of the 4th quarter.  Michigan won.  Too many plays on the backs of too few players will lead to 4th quarter collapse.  This can happen to an offense just as well as a defense.
Another point:  Sometimes the right thing to do is drop into a ball control offense.  Use the clock. End the game. 
I'm really enchanted with the prospect of spreading the field & finding the mismatch of the moment.  I like the idea of HUO to shut down substitutions when we've got the right people on the field & they don't.   Its a great tool for the tool box.  But to win a game against a truly great opponent, we'll need more than one tool.


Poison nuts's picture

Great points! I feel this same way. Think it could work well - hope it's not the only tool in the shed...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

cinserious's picture

I'm glad you mentioned these points buckeye76bhop. It was just last night that i was thinking about the fact that OSU is definitely a 'destination' for coaches and now with such a winner at had coach, why would any of these guys want to leave? They are for the most part Ohio guys with much live for the state and with many connections. Plus they are working for another Ohioguy in urban who will go to bat for his assistant coaches to ensure they are paid on par and beyond thier colleagues. Which an institution like OSU won't have any problem accomplishing. Nobody will be making lateral moves like warriner and Hinton from ND, but i guess we might lose people who are trying to advance but it would have to be a top ten program who is willing to shell out buku bucks.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

buckeye76BHop's picture

^^^^Let's hope man...IMO this could be the best coaching staff OSU has seen as a collective whole...if they live up to the hype and then stay together to see the ship sail.  Could be great or...we'll have to see.  Can't wait for 9/1....less than two weeks!

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

buckeyeEddie27's picture

What do you guys think the over-under is on how long this group of coaches stays together?  5 years?   They are a very talented group with HC aspirations i would think.   Who goes first?   Herman? Fick? Withers?   interesting topic.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

faux_maestro's picture

Over/under 2 1/2

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

OSUBias's picture

Herman seems really sharp from the All Access thing. Fick looked over matched as the head guy last year. Withers got a taste of being the guy last year as well. I'll say 3 years with the main guys, tops. My vote is for Herman to be the first to get a head coaching gig.
Of course there may be more turnover with the lower level coaches, I assume we're just talking about the top tier guys.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing