On the surface, the decision by Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong and play caller Shawn Watson to run a hurry-up offense with just over four minutes remaining in the game against UCLA Bruins didn't make sense.
After all, late-game situations often call for running the ball and burning clock, most of the time operating with a huddle.
But as Scipio Tex explains over at Barking Carnival explains, game theory comes to a bit different conclusion, especially for a four-minute drill that requires a vastly different approach than drives attempting to kill less clock. However, that isn't the crux of the point here, though his explanation for the situation should be understood:
Of course we want to burn clock. Burning meaningful clock in that game context is only possible by acquiring more sets of downs. Full stop. In the formula of clock burning, the time spent on three individual plays is secondary at that juncture to the amount of plays run. The amount of plays run is contingent on getting more first downs. That's it.
The most important thing the Texas offense could do was maximize its chances of acquiring more downs. Flipping the field or a score would be a nice side benefit of same. We were not going to acquire more downs running down clock (we couldn't - UCLA would call timeouts on defense) by going with a full house backfield and pushing the Bruins around. Because - watch the game and look at our OL. And think about how timeouts work.
Why did the coaches make the seemingly odd decision not to burn clock against the Bruins?
Because the hurry-up, no-huddle approach adopted by the staff worked on the previous touchdown drive, which covered 80 yards in 10 plays and four minutes, an average of one play every 24 seconds.
Not exactly light-speed, but the crucial play came when junior running back Johnathan Gray was able to break free for a 31-yard run because UCLA had trouble with their defensive alignment pre-snap. The only other significant run on the day was a 22-yard effort by senior running back Malcolm Brown and the other carries by Gray produced little of consequence -- his other six carries went for only 18 yards total.
The major issues for Texas right now, as elucidated in the excellent post-game statistical summary, is that the Horns are struggling to produce first downs and stay on the field -- three-and-outs are extremely harmful to the defense whether they happen in a handful of seconds or across a minute and a half.
As a result, both BYU and UCLA ran 20 or more plays than Texas, a fact that has likely caused some fatigue for the defense.
The irony here is that Strong wants to run a slow offense predicated on picking up short chunks of yardage but staying ahead of the chains so that he can protect his defense from being on the field too long.
But with an inexperienced offensive line and lack of vertical passing game as a result, Strong's preferred philosophy isn't working and since there aren't many answers in terms of playmakers at the moment, running a fast-paced attack may be the easiest way for the Horns to create creases in opposing defenses.
Strong knows from his time working with Urban Meyer at Florida and from facing hurry-up, no-huddle offenses the pressure that it can put on defenses by stressing the ability to line up correctly and causing fatigue and even though the 2010 spread-option Nebraska offense operated about as quickly as Louisville did last year, Texas has installed the tempo and should continue to use it.
There just aren't many other answers for Watson right now.