The abundance of OT games has brought thrills and an element of luck
Most college coaches believe the overtime format adopted in 1996, in which each team gets the ball on the opponent's 25-yard line an equal number of times, is fair, especially when compared with the NFL's sudden-death format. SI surveyed all 32 overtime games involving Division I-A teams this season. Here's what we found.
In every one of those 32 games the team that won the toss chose to play defense first. The reasoning behind this seems obvious: Having played defense, the toss-winning team goes on offense knowing how many points it needs to win or send the game into another overtime. (An OT period is made up of a possession by each team.) But that's not why playing defense first pays off. In fact, in the 17 games decided in the first overtime this year, the teams that played defense first are 10-7, a relatively insignificant edge.
The advantage doesn't show up until the second overtime. In two-OT games this season, teams that won the toss are 9-3. That's because in the second overtime, the fundamental truth of OT—that most of the pressure is on the defense—emerges. Now the team that began on defense in the first OT starts on offense. It lines up against a defense that was just on the field and is often drained. "That's too much of an advantage," says Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder, whose Sun Devils played in a record three consecutive overtime games in late October and early November, losing two of them in double OT after having lost the coin toss. "Defenses wear out sooner than offenses."
Nevertheless, says Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, defenses must attack from the moment overtime begins. The Ducks, who lead the Pac-10 and are 3-0 in OT games since Aliotti arrived last season, won consecutive extended games this fall, against Arizona State and Washington State. "We probably play a lot more aggressively in overtime, but not until the second down," says Aliotti. "You always want to win first down. I'm going to go with a solid call there from what we've seen all game. On second down I'll try to be more aggressive." A blitz could result in third-and-long and possibly knock an opponent out of field goal range.
Perhaps the best way for an offense to wear down the opposing defense in overtime is to stick to the ground. As popular as the pass has become in this age of the spread offense, the team that runs the ball more effectively in overtime usually wins. In the 32 games victorious teams ran the ball on two thirds of their overtime plays, while losing teams passed on 53% of snaps.
Though coaches and players would prefer not to play overtime, it's exciting for participants and fans. "It's thrilling as hell," says Snyder. "There's graphic importance on every play." Aliotti calls it a "nerve-racking sumbitch." Unlike in the NFL there's no possibility for a tie under the college format. If the score is even after an overtime period, another is played. Then, beginning in the third overtime, a team must attempt a two-point conversion if it scores a touchdown. Snyder likes the way that rule forces the issue. "[Former USC coach] John McKay used to say, 'The game starts out as a tie. Why try to tie it at the end?' " Snyder says.
Even Cal's Tom Holmoe, one college coach who doesn't like the overtime format (he prefers the NFL system), acknowledges its appeal. "It's entertaining," says Holmoe, whose Bears beat UCLA 46-38 in three overtimes on Oct. 14, "but it's not football." Holmoe points out that, for example, the format penalizes teams that normally gain an advantage by having strong punt and kickoff squads—units that never step on the field in OT.
Still, Holmoe concedes that overtime has challenged coaches to do some fresh thinking. "Coaches are still learning the strategy," he says. "We have a lot of coaches on our staff who have 30-odd years of experience. I go to them for most things, and they have an answer. They don't have answers when I ask about overtime."
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