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Quantifying K-State’s Late Audibles

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K-State commonly changes play calls late at the line of scrimmage. Is it worth it?

NCAA Football: Kansas State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Late audibles are nothing new at K-State. When I was a student starting in 2002, we often counted down the play clock in a misguided attempt at helpfulness toward Ell Roberson. Then groaned our disgust when we burned a timeout in the first quarter of an early-season thrashing of Eastern Dakota State. Wildcat00 told me in a conversation today they did the same thing when she was in school, which was, like, eons ago, man. Furnace mentioned in yesterday’s Slate that he talked to Lynn Dickey about it shortly after brontosaurus met his unfortunate demise.

If someone had a lot of time and patience, they could probably rewatch a lot of Snyder-era games on YouTube and chart how often we audible late in the play clock and determine our success rate on those plays. I don’t have such time, but if you’re feeling ambitious, go for it.

A free Sunday enabled me to watch K-State’s offensive possessions again and chart our late audibles. Here was my methodology: a late audible is any play where Jesse Ertz kills the cadence with 10 or fewer seconds on the play clock and approaches the offensive line to communicate new signals to the offensive line and backfield skill position players.

For success, we’ll give the coaches the benefit of the doubt and assume the audible is a “better” call than the original play call. Which may be an unwarranted assumption, but is required by our lack of access to Dana Dimel’s headset. A successful play is defined using Bill Connelly’s Success Rate definition (gaining 50% of yardage to go on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down). For this purpose, we’ll consider burning a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty an unsuccessful outcome.

The cutoff is arbitrary, but it’s self-evident that the later a play call is changed, the higher the risk of incurring a delay-of-game penalty or using a timeout to avoid the penalty. A brief philosophical discussion will conclude the post.

Late Audibles Against West Virginia

Format: Quarter and time, down and distance to gain, seconds remaining on play clock when call commences, result of play and yards gained

1st quarter 14:58, 1st and 10, check at 10 seconds, pass complete to Byron Pringle for 13 yards, SUCCESSFUL

1st quarter, 7:50, 2nd and 5, check at 7 seconds, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL

1st quarter, 6:39, 2nd and 10, check at 7, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL

1st quarter, 6:32, 3rd and 10, check at 9, pass complete to Pringle for 18 yards, SUCCESSUL

1st quarter, 5:59, 1st and 10, check at 7, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL

2nd quarter, 14:51, 2nd and 10, check at 10, Charles Jones rush for 9 yards, SUCCESS

2nd quarter, 13:20, 1st and 15, check at 10, pass complete to Isaiah Zuber for 13 yards, SUCCESS

2nd quarter, 12:35, 2nd and 2, check at 9 seconds, TIMEOUT, UNSUCCESSFUL

2nd quarter, 12:23, 3rd and 2, check at 7 seconds, TIMEOUT, UNSUCCESSFUL

3rd quarter, 10:30, 2nd and 5, check at 6 seconds, TIMEOUT, UNSUCCESSFUL

3rd quarter, 9:21, 2nd and 9, check at 9 seconds, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL*

3rd quarter, 2:47, 1st and 10, check at 9 seconds, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL

3rd quarter, 2:35, 2nd and 10, check at 10 seconds, pass incomplete, UNSUCCESSFUL**

4th quarter, 5:32, 2nd and 7, check at 10, Jones rush for -1 yard, UNSUCCESSFUL

4th quarter, 3:34, 2nd and 6, check at 10, Jones rush for 5 yards, SUCCESSFUL

4th quarter, 2:20, 2nd and 10, check at 6, Jones rush for -2 yards, UNSUCCESSFUL

*Pass to Pringle in the end zone that was dropped. Technically an unsuccessful play because execution is required for the result, but the receiver was open and the throw was on target.

**Pass to Dominique Heath along the sideline. Only an excellent play by a West Virginia defender prevented a successful play here.

I point out the above two scenarios for context only. College football is a results-oriented business, but it’s worth considering that on occasion the correct decision is made but the execution fails for reasons unknowable.

Total up the plays above and you get the following result: 16 late audibles, 5 successful results, 11 unsuccessful results, including three timeouts called

That’s a 31.3 percent Success Rate if you’re scoring at home. For reference, Arkansas State’s 31.5 percent Success Rate ranks 128th nationally in S&P+.

Discussion

This is one game’s worth of data. It’s also a road game for a first-year quarterback, an offensive line with four new starters, and a receiving corps with two new starters. Despite atrocious efficiency numbers, K-State’s offense put together enough big plays to make four trips to the red zone and, had they converted even one more of them into a touchdown, would have been enough to win.

That doesn’t change the atrocious result above. K-State’s coaches may have made more mistakes than they usually do. And we should call special attention to the sequence near the beginning of the second quarter when K-State faced first a 2nd and 2 situation, then a 3rd and 2 situation, and burned timeouts on both plays. Literally every single play in the playbook other than your QB sneak, QB kneel and clock-killing play should be designed to gain more than two yards. Burning two timeouts to throw two passes and not pick up two yards for a first down in the red zone is inexcusable.

But the result of one game doesn’t invalidate K-State’s overall offensive approach under Bill Snyder, Dana Dimel and Del Miller. As noted, this is nothing new at K-State, and it’s a system that has won nearly 200 games and two conference titles.

Philosophy

That said, simply because a system is successful doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Let’s talk a bit about football strategy and philosophy in general.

Consider audible philosophy on a spectrum. At one end, the play called is final regardless of the defense’s alignment. On the other, audibles are called at any time for any or no reason.

Every single college football program falls somewhere in the middle. Common approaches include using audibles often to get into a better play against the defense’s look, and using audibles rarely to avoid only truly disastrous situations. K-State falls toward the former philosophy.

Like most things in philosophy, that’s not necessarily wrong. Over the years, K-State has certainly audibled into thousands of successful plays, and has probably won games on the strength of these calls. They’ve also certainly used 100s of timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties as a result of their constant quest to call a better play.

That raises an important question: what’s the value of a timeout? Coaches who fail to call available timeouts in the waning seconds of a half or game are often mocked for their conservatism. Can’t sell those timeouts on eBay, y’know.

But what are timeouts for? They can be used to avoid penalties, such as illegal substitutions or delay of game. They can be used when there’s confusion regarding personnel. They can be used to kill the clock late in the half or game on a drive for a late score.

Some will take the approach that the value of saving timeouts for end-of-half or end-of-game situations outweighs using them for more trivial purposes earlier. Others argue that sustaining a potential scoring drive early in the first or second or third or even fourth quarter by getting into a better play call or avoiding a penalty is more valuable than the theoretical future value of the timeout.

My approach would make less aggressive use of late audibles to protect timeouts to the extent possible. It seems that using late audibles only to avoid truly disastrous play calls, and using timeouts for these same purposes, strikes the correct balance between every-down efficiency and possible high-leverage situations later. Of course, this is exceedingly simplified and I’m a lawyer who’s writing this for free, not a coach who’s paid six or seven figures to win major-college games.

In short, K-State’s coaches could probably tweak their approach to enable faster audibles. Shortening the verbiage required or setting a higher number on the play clock as their drop-dead time for communicating an audible seem like obvious solutions. Or maybe, as their first-year quarterback and four first-year starters on the offensive line gain experience, the audible process will go more smoothly. And other than Norman, this will probably be the loudest road environment K-State faces this year.

That said, this approach has achieved unprecedented success in Manhattan. Maybe we’re making too much out of one result against a good team, on the road, in a hostile environment, with a first-year quarterback and four new starters on the offensive line, in a game where almost literally one more good play would have resulted in a win.