Before USC and Stanford finished their 104-point, triple-overtime thriller, Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin was trying to win the game with time running down late in regulation.
With less than 10 seconds remaining and the score tied in the fourth quarter, QB Matt Barkley threw a screen pass to Robert Woods, who was unable to get out of bounds or otherwise stop the clock before time expired—or was he?
Kiffin claims he had requested a timeout prior to what would become the final play of the fourth quarter. He claims an official had told him, "You're going to get to kick the 50-yard field goal to win the game."
One problem: There is no such thing as an automatic or instantaneous timeouts. Timeouts are not granted ahead of time.
Another problem: Officials don't promise teams that they will win ball-games. That's just silly.
Referee Michael Batlan denied Kiffin's claim and elaborated: "Any coach can ask for a timeout but he doesn’t get one until an official grants or signifies it."
Batlan is correct. Officials are the ones who call timeouts, not coaches and not players.
Kiffin claims he then requested a timeout with one second still remaining on the game clock. Video replays confirm Kiffin requested a timeout with more than one second remaining—prior to Woods' knee hitting the ground and prior to any whistle being blown to declare the play dead—and then continuously signaled and shouted for timeout as triple zeros flashed on the Coliseum scoreboard.
Timeouts are simply not granted while the ball is live and the ball carrier hasn't yet been declared down. Timeouts may only be granted and signified when the ball is dead.
After the play, instant replay review overturned the initial call of time expiring when Woods stepped out of bounds to the final call of time expiring when Woods' knee hit the ground in-bounds, as Kiffin's timeout request had not been acknowledged prior to 0:00.
For the record, Woods was declared down on the Stanford sideline, leaving the official on Kiffin's sideline having to guess the exact moment Woods touched down.
Unfortunately, football clocks are not like basketball clocks. Football clocks do not measure tenths of a second. Theoretically, a football clock reading 0:01 may really be 0:01.9, just as it may really be 0:01.0. All that the college football rules state is when a game clock reads 0:00, time has expired.
Yes, that means that the game clock could theoretically read 0:00.9 at the expiration of the quarter.
In reality, the time elapsed from Woods' knee touching the ground at 0:01 to the game clock reading 0:00 was no more than 0.250 seconds. The official had no more than 0.249 seconds to call timeout from the time of the dead ball to the expiration of the quarter.
Average human recognition reaction time for one stimulus has been recorded as 384 milliseconds, or 0.384 seconds. Recognition reaction time is not to be confused with simple reaction time, which carries an average delay of only .220 seconds.
We consider recognition as opposed to simple reaction time because the official must carefully ensure several criteria have been met before granting a timeout request, instead of simply whistling the timeout based on one expected stimulus. These criteria include:
- The ball is dead. Either the ball hasn't yet been snapped, the incomplete pass has fallen to the ground, or, as was the case in Stanford-USC, the ball-carrier had been declared down or out of play.
- The coach or player must request the timeout and the official must signify this request.
- The rules must permit for a timeout to be granted. If there is no time left in the period, the timeout shall not be granted as the game has entered a between-period intermission.
This means that before granting a potential timeout, the official on Kiffin's sideline must have first acknowledged the play as dead, acknowledged Kiffin's timeout request and verified there was still one second on the game clock. Those are three stimuli. The following three items are confounding variables which further delay reaction time:
- Crowd noise, which prevents officials from clearly hearing requests for timeout and makes verifying the timeout request more difficult and time consuming.
- The logistics involved in turning one's head to see a coach and turning one's head or moving one's eyes to locate a scoreboard.
- The distance between the coach and the nearest official at the time of the timeout request.
With the average reaction time for one stimulus recorded as 384 milliseconds, Hick's law dictates the average reaction time for three stimuli is approximately 436-464 milliseconds, or an average of 0.450 seconds.
That means the average person would not have been able to call timeout until .200 seconds after the expiration of the period (0.450 -0.250 = 0.200). Officials are no different. People simply don't have recognition reaction times less than 0.250 seconds, especially when you add the confounding variables into the mix.
In Stanford-USC, it was scientifically impossible for officials to grant Kiffin's timeout given the time remaining in the period when Woods fell to the ground.
Kiffin summed up USC's triple-OT loss by saying he was "really disappointed in the officials. Extremely disappointed."
He wasn't disappointed in Woods for consuming a full six seconds running across the field and running the clock to the brink. He wasn't disappointed in several USC turnovers, including a game-losing fumble in the third overtime.
Kiffin was extremely disappointed not in his team's performance, but in the officials, who simply did their jobs within the scope of the rules.
Perhaps Barkley and Kiffin should have a heart-to-heart during practices this week.
When Barkley was asked about the final play of regulation, he was not thinking of the officials.
Instead, Barkley pragmatically stated, "I was yelling at [Woods]. I was yelling, ‘Get down’ because I could see the clock. That play never really goes that far across the field. You hit it, and you turn upfield, but it was an unfortunate that it didn’t work out."
Barkley was and has always been a competitor who plays the game and directs his comments towards his teammates, not towards officials.
Perhaps Kiffin should likewise consider coaching his team instead of coaching the officials.