When reviewing any close finish, one specific play cannot be labeled the only reason for a loss. In a 60-minute—or more—contest, mistakes are scattered throughout the game. But when the clock is running down and someone messes up, it sure feels like a single error might have changed the outcome.
After enduring crushing losses in Week 8, fans of Ole Miss and Penn State know exactly the feeling. Their favorite teams snatched defeats from the jaws of victory.
Mississippi's loss to Auburn is a good example of an early problem leading to a late disaster.
While leading 28-27 in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss appeared to recover a deflected kickoff in the end zone for a touchdown. Officials ruled Auburn running back Shaun Shivers didn't touch the ball—though he clearly did. (The SEC has since admitted the mistake.)
The Rebels still forced a punt, but Lane Kiffin started to fight the clock.
First, with 2:33 to play, he called a timeout rather than take a delay-of-game penalty on 4th-and-5 at midfield. If you're punting anyway, a timeout is vastly more important than field position when the kicker can reach the end zone regardless. Mac Brown did exactly that with a touchback.
Auburn scored a go-ahead touchdown on the following drive, leaving 1:11 on the clock. Ole Miss took possession at the 25-yard line with two timeouts.
After an incompletion, quarterback Matt Corral ran for a first down, so the clock stopped to reset the chains. Corral then scrambled for eight yards but was tackled in play. Kiffin elected not to use a timeout, and 12 of the remaining 41 seconds ticked away.
Since it was 2nd-and-2 and Auburn needed to protect against a downfield pass, Ole Miss had a high probability of a first down. Calling a timeout would've prepared the Rebels to move the chains and be ready to follow that stoppage.
Kiffin explained his thinking after the game.
"When he gets tackled, the guys weren't way down there to have to use a timeout, so just trying to get back and have [the timeouts]," he told reporters. "It could've worked."
In total fairness, the last phrase is a reminder that no single moment is the absolute reason for a loss. Five snaps later, Kenny Yeboah dropped a pass inside the 10-yard line. Had he caught it, the Rebels would've been in good position with a few seconds left.
Execution, ultimately, is what matters most. Still, an extra 12 seconds—easily two snaps given the likelihood of that 2nd-and-2 conversion—would've saved time and increased Ole Miss' margin for error. Factor in the timeout Kiffin should've protected earlier and the Rebels missed out on two extra plays at the end.
Little things make a big difference. Just ask Penn State.
With 1:47 left on the clock at Indiana, the Nittany Lions forced a turnover on downs while clinging to a 21-20 edge. Indiana only had one timeout, so Penn State could practically close the game.
The math is maddeningly simple, but James Franklin failed. Nobody instructed running back Devyn Ford of his two jobs: Protect the ball, and do not score a touchdown. Instead, a confused Ford waltzed past a strategically absent Indiana defense, which literally celebrated the play.
In that situation, a first down would've sealed the win.
Worst case, three carries short of the first-down marker would've burned no less than 1:32—a minimum of four seconds for three plays each and two 40-second play clocks. And on fourth down, Penn State could've simply thrown a fade—a low-percentage, low-risk play—instead of kicking a field goal that could be blocked.
Even with a turnover on downs, Indiana would've needed to cover 85-plus yards in about seven seconds. Ford's touchdown saved the Hoosiers, who won in overtime on this controversial—though not necessarily wrong—two-point conversion.
"It's my job as the head coach to make sure everybody clearly understands those situations and, obviously, right there that didn't happen," Franklin told reporters.
Worst of all, this problem isn't limited to college football.
This same weekend in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons gifted the Detroit Lions a late chance in the same way Penn State did Indiana. Todd Gurley rushed for a 10-yard score when the Falcons only needed a field goal, giving the Lions the ball with 1:04 remaining. Detroit answered with a game-winning touchdown as time expired.
Later, the Arizona Cardinals nearly gave away a victory over the Seattle Seahawks. In overtime, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury decided a 41-yard field-goal attempt on second down was better than continuing to advance a drive that had covered 47 yards on three preceding runs. Arizona never should've needed an interception to survive Seattle.
Yes, coaches will never be perfect. And yes, late plays are subject to an unfair level of scrutiny considering the many other impactful moments scattered throughout a 60-minute game.
As the final seconds tick away, though, it's only reasonable to expect head coaches and their assistants to be prepared to make and communicate the right decisions.
Sometimes, as the Cardinals did, a team can overcome a questionable choice. But these head-turning decisions are evident before the result is known. And when a loss follows—as it did for Ole Miss, Penn State and the Falcons—it's incredibly frustrating to have seen familiar and fully avoidable mistakes.