Dan Mullen knows it wasn’t necessarily fun to watch.
It was frustrating, and maddening and to use his word, annoying.
For two weeks in a row, the No. 4 Florida Gators have fielded their defense for final drives of long stretches (4:19 versus Ole Miss and 7:23 versus South Carolina).
“It was like, annoying,” described Mullen.
“We want to get a stop and get the offense on the field. It got kind of annoying.”
Annoying is a good word. The scoreboard showed each win to be by two plus scores, but when watching the opponent hold the ball for half a quarter and methodically march down the field, one could practically hear Todd Grantham’s name being hissed in contempt across Gator Nation.
Todd Grantham is fine with that, because on the sidelines both weeks, he was thinking ahead to the end of the game and saw the outcome. He was able to do that by looking back.
“I remember one year that I was in Cleveland, we were up by nine and Brett Favre had the ball with, like, five minutes and 14 seconds left. I’m like, you’ve got to take the clock. I think they scored with one second left.”
The former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator, now with the Gators in his third season, was in an identical timing situation in Week 1 against Ole Miss. The Rebels received the ball, down three scores with five minutes and 14 seconds to play. They put together a 16 play, 75 yard drive that ended in a touchdown. Obviously the first choice would be to stop them completely and give the offense the ball back, but what happened instead was Grantham’s second choice.
Football is often referred to as a game of chess vs. checkers. Who is making simple one space moves and who is thinking six moves ahead? Todd Grantham, as admittedly “annoying” as it can be, was thinking ahead.
“You’ve got to play each game relative to the score and to win the game. As much as sometimes you may not like that, you’ve just got to take the clock in that situation.”
Ole Miss had scored on their previous drive on a five play sequence. The second play of that drive featured a 2nd and 16 from the Rebs own 13-yard line. The Gators exposed the middle of the field, covering deep to protect the shot. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral took the middle shot, and Kenny Yeboah picked up 33-yards. Three plays later, Yeboah was in the endzone.
In total, Kiffin’s squad had 14 explosive plays (pass of 15 plus yards, runs for 10 plus yards) for a total of 423 yards.
By covering the downfield shot, the underneath throw was often open, allowing the Rebels to pick up a few yards at a time and keep the chains moving. But with Ole Miss down three scores and needing at least two touchdowns, two successful attempts at a two-point conversion and a field goal, Todd Grantham was happy to give up a first down here and there and keep the clock rolling.
"So we were up by three scores, and there’s like [5:14] to go. The end of the day, the most important thing is you win the game. The way you lose the game is you give up an explosive play right off the bat and you force an onside kick. Now you’re down to a two-possession game, then you’ve got to play with them with time on the clock. There was a 3rd-and-1 there where actually going against [Ole Miss Head Coach] Lane [Kiffin] before in that situation, you’ve gotta be ready for a shot. There’s two and a half minutes in the game, and it’s 3rd-and-1. You give the first, keep the clock running at that point. You understand what I’m saying?
“Because at the end of the day, if they score on third and —if they take a shot on third and 1 and don’t get it, they’re going to run for it on fourth down. You have to understand the clock is a factor in what you do, and you’ve got to keep it moving to allow you to get it down to where they can’t win the game.”
After scoring a touchdown, Ole Miss did recover an onside kick, but the defensive strategy remained the same for the Gators on the six play, 42-yard drive that the defense held off before it found the endzone.
“Even if they go get the onside kick (which they did), I think they had it down to 17 seconds. They don’t score on this play, the game’s over. Because you can’t run a play with 7 or 8 seconds left, then get the ball back and win. My point is in that situation, as much as sometimes it can be frustrating, you’ve gotta take the clock and win the ball game and worry about next week next week.”
The next week, the Gators defense faced the same situation with much the same result. Up 38-24 with 8:11 left on the clock, Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks took over at their own 22-yard line.
Muschamp’s clock management skills are infamous. It’s what caused many a Florida fan to take up drinking during his tenure in Gainesville and it could easily be argued it’s what cost his team the win against the Tennessee Volunteers in Week 1.
But last Saturday, back in the Swamp and in a closer score situation than Kiffin’s squad was, Grantham again played with the clock when calling plays against Muschamp and the Gamecocks.
Asked if he was allowing a team to “take the clock” once again, Grantham responded right away, “absolutely.”
If Grantham is game planning against opponents in this way, surely others are well. So how does a team overcome the strategy? With Mullen one of the best offensive minds in the game, we asked him just that.
“I’ve always believed this as an offensive coach. When you’re down two scores, you have to get the first before you can get the second. Sometimes you get into such a rush to get the first that you never give yourself an opportunity to get the second. You’ve got to manage the clock, you’ve got to look at your timeout situation, the score of the game, how much time do you need for the second score. And make sure you put yourself in a position to get the second score. But not in a panic to not get the first, if that makes sense.
“After you get the first, now you’re in, depending on the clock, you’re going to kind of instead of going hurry-up, two-minute offense, you’re going to run your offense to get the first score. When it gets to the point where you need to pick up the tempo and go, but you want to run your offense to get that first score, and then it’s a one-score game.
“Do you onside kick? What’s your timeout situation? Do you kick deep and pin them deep and try to get the ball back how much time do we need to get it back down the field? Do we try the onside kick with the amount of time left, or how is that going to affect field position when we get it back another time? So, I think all of these things come into consideration. How you’re trying to manage the game in the fourth quarter.”
Mullen spent a lot of time this week talking about the lack of “killer instinct” in the Gators against South Carolina and something he wants addressed immediately. But at the end of the day—as is one of his favorite sayings—sometimes you win 42-41 and sometimes you win 3-0. The important thing is to win.
“In the end, our goal is to win football games however we need to do it. Now, trust me, I’d rather us get off the field, get the offense the ball back, go score again. Finish the game out that way and not even have the opportunity for it to get close at the end after being up by 24 in the third quarter, to not even let it get close. But you’re also going to play, everything you’re doing is to win the game, not to make mistakes. It’d be a terrible thing to sit there and say, hey, our, our … I don’t know what it would be, just our decisions cost us the game. I never want to sit there and say our decisions to play maybe for fun or excitement or whatever the word might be cost us the game instead of doing what we needed to do to win.
“You look at the last two games, trust me, I know Todd, all of us, we want to get off the field. Get the defense off the field, get the offense back on the field. Multiple scores in the fourth quarter. But not to the point where we want to give up an explosive play and give them an easy score. We want to make them earn it. It’s that fine line back and forth in each of the the last two weeks, basically, the defense has kind of finished the game on the field. Basically, the defense eating up the clock for us instead of the offense have to go out there and grind out first downs. The defense forced them to go on a long drive, keep it all in front of them, don’t give them anything easy, and basically end the game.”