The Agony and Ecstasy of Overtime: Twenty years after its introduction, coaches still fret over the right strategy
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On Dec. 14, 1995, Gary Pinkel and his Toledo Rockets reached the end of the Las Vegas Bowl tied with Nevada at 34. When Toledo won the ensuing coin toss and Pinkel elected to play defense, the Toledo fans inside Sam Boyd Stadium booed and grumbled. How could their coach give away the game?
Looking back, Pinkel laughs. That was the first overtime contest in what was then called Division I-A—now FBS—football, part of a bowl-season experiment. The fans in the stadium assumed that extended play would operate under the same rules as NFL overtimes then did: first team to score wins.
Sure enough, Nevada moved the ball far enough to end up kicking a 22-yard field goal. Minutes later, Rockets running back Wasean Tait ran for a two-yard touchdown, giving Toledo a 40–37 victory and Pinkel a renewed claim on his sanity. The coach remembers meeting his family after the game. "My kids said, [The fans] were all over you, man," says Pinkel, who left Toledo for Missouri in 2000 and retired in '15. "Then we actually won."
The victory capped an undefeated season for the Rockets, and two months later, on Feb. 16, the NCAA voted to have Division I-A fall in line with Divisions I-AA, II, III, the NFL and much of high school ball by playing overtime. The original rules were almost identical to those used today: Each team gets the ball once, starting on the defense's 25-yard line, with the winner of a coin flip choosing offense or defense first. The order of possession alternates with each subsequent overtime. The only change came in 1997, when the NCAA required teams to go for two-point conversions after every touchdown beginning with the third overtime in an effort to prevent games from dragging on.
What Pinkel chose to do that December day is what most coaches would elect to do today. They play defense first, and the rest of overtime strategy flows from that. "Generally you want to find out what the other team has got, what they're going to be able to do," says former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who was in eight overtime games in his final four seasons. "If they don't score any points, then your decision—do we line up and just kick a field goal?—becomes easier."
Easier but still not easy. In the 20 years since overtime arrived, coaches have developed rules of thumb—some near universal, others more nuanced—for handling bonus football. But overtime, with its compressed action and heightened stakes, doesn't often lend itself to rules, which is what makes it frustrating for coaches and exhilarating for fans.
From the start of the 2012 season through Week 6 of 2016, there were 174 overtime games. Of that total, 111 lasted a single overtime session, and the team that played defense first won 56% of the time. Overall, the team that started on defense in the overtime period that decided the game has won 54% of those. That advantage is enough that Nevada coach Brian Polian says he can't imagine not electing to play defense first. Maybe, he says, if weather conditions indicated it would be easier to score sooner rather than later, he'd consider going out on offense first, or if his defense were particularly gassed from a trying fourth quarter.
Of course, only one team can win a coin flip. The team that loses the toss can't choose which unit to send out, but it can pick which end of the field to take. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says a team should play near its student section at home or where most of its fans are if it's on the road.
Such are the details that college coaches obsess over, and overtime only amplifies their compulsiveness. "Because we're sickos—football coaches," says Polian. "We focus on every last detail and all the minutia." More and more that minutiae includes advanced stats that track tendencies. How often does a team run to the short side of the field on second down? How often do they play press with a single high safety in passing situations? The data are compiled in the weeks before the game, ready to be called up, sorted and analyzed with a few clicks, and available on the sidelines. "You have to meticulously go back [and] track the guy calling [your opponent's] plays," Pinkel says. "You look at his overtimes to find out what he did and what his philosophy was."
At Missouri, Pinkel held meetings with players and staff every Thursday at which he'd discuss any conceivable situation in a game, including the opponent's overtime tendencies. Polian and the Wolf Pack start overtime prep even earlier, stressing the basics of extra time during the preseason. For instance, there's no game clock in overtime, which can cause confusion. "Players are going to look up, and there will be no time on the game clock," he says. "But they still have to pay attention to the play clock."
During the season Polian simulates overtime at practice, perhaps not every week, but at least occasionally. Liberty coach Turner Gill does the same. In 2008, when Gill was the coach at Buffalo, his team played four overtimes in a six-game span, going 3–1. "You put the ball on the 25," Gill says of his practice routine. "You say it's the overtime period for the offensive and defensive scenarios, and you play it out. You want to do it on the football field, so physically and mentally they know what that looks like and what that feels like." Polian even goes so far as to practice overtime at the end of workouts, to simulate as close as he can the exhaustion players will feel should an actual game be extended. "You want it to be as realistic as possible in terms of these guys being fatigued," he says. "You're going to be fatigued."
Once overtime starts, coaches differ in their approaches, but certain strategies are widely accepted. Coaches know their opponents have tracked their every decision, but Pinkel and Beamer, two of the winningest head men of the past two decades, are adamant that a team needs to stick to its identity. Squads with aggressive defenses that can pressure the quarterback often have an advantage, but asking a middling defense to employ unfamiliar blitzing schemes may be a mistake. Likewise, most coaches say they don't save plays for overtime. "If there was a better way to play in the red zone, you'd do that during [regulation]," Whittingham says.
Coaches also preach kicking the extra point instead of going for two (until rules require you to do otherwise), playing conservatively if you get the ball first and focusing on first downs, not touchdowns. "We came to the conclusion that more downs gave us a better chance of scoring," Pinkel says. "We rarely threw for the end zone." On defense, as always, try to generate a negative play on first down, which remains the best way to kill a drive.
The coaches are unanimous, though, in saying that the most effective overtime strategy occurs before 60 minutes is up: Try to end things in regulation, especially if you're an underdog, or on the road, or have little depth or have given up a big lead. Although there's near universal agreement on this point, coaches still have a hard time laying it all on the line in the fourth quarter.
If anything, overtime is becoming more common. Through the first eight weeks of this season, there were 32 overtime games, or 6.2% of the total played. That's an increase from 4.1% over the period from 2006 through '15. In addition, 2.1% of games have ended in double overtime, up from 0.8%, and 1.2% have gone to three or more overtimes, up from 0.6%. Most coaches think the surge in extra sessions is a result of parity, but it may also reflect a growing ease among coaches with the format and the realization that playing more than four quarters can be a positive. When the College Football Playoff selection committee debates standings, it takes how close a game was into consideration. In the committee's first 2016 ranking, out on Nov. 1, two-loss Wisconsin came in at No. 8. It helped that one of those losses came to No. 6 Ohio State—in overtime.
FBS overtime is one of the few major changes introduced in any sport that flourished on the first try, with minimal grousing, that has had almost no alterations and that has been met with a sense that it improved the game. Why not? It's easy to understand, it's fair and it introduces an element of excitement and unpredictability. Think of Boise State's 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, a 43–42 miracle that included a hook-and-lateral, a halfback pass and a Statue of Liberty play.
Two years before Gill's season of four overtime games, his Buffalo team played in Week 2 at Bowling Green. Kickoff was scheduled for 3 p.m., and storms were forecast for the afternoon. Sure enough, officials stopped the game twice, one time for 68 minutes and the second for 39. Time expired with the game tied at 27, and the teams battled through three overtimes before Bowling Green won with a touchdown. It was 8:18 p.m. What Gill remembers most about the day was sending personnel to a nearby store to buy food—candy bars, as he recalls—to eat on the sidelines because players were not only exhausted, they were famished.
The experience impressed upon Gill that no matter how much a coach plans and practices, overtime is always an adventure. That's why he tends to go with his gut—rarely consulting assistants on big decisions in extra time and using only a handful of advanced stats. Overtime, he says, is about instinct, heroics, the unexpected—and milk chocolate.