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Respect This Hustle Remix: Why Clock Offense Matters

Yesterday, I posted my play-by-play breakdown of NU's drives at the end of halves this year.  I concluded with a degree of optimism about NU's clock offense even though only one of the three ended with points.  One critical part of this success appears to be that NU gets to practice their end of half offense all the time because they operate in a high tempo no-huddle system.  Today, I want to make two arguments: first, that this is a situational strength of particular importance to a team's general performance; second, that it may help explain NU's excellent close game record in recent years.

Because we generally think of clock offense in terms of end of game drives, it is somewhat counterintuitive that it is easier to establish the first of these two arguments.  This is due to the structure of a football game.  Starting from the opening kickoff, teams alternate possessions.  So long as each team has an equal number of possessions, the team that maximizes value per possession will win the game (this is the basic premise behind the Fremeau Efficiency Index).

If a team can gain an extra possession, however, they can overcome a significant efficiency disadvantage.  This depends on how many possessions are in the game: if one team scores 4 points per drive and another 3 PPD, they break even in expected value when the first team has 3 drives and the second 4.  In a game where teams have similar PPD expectations, a single extra possession can be decisive.

This suggests that a team that can consistently create extra possessions will be better than its per possession average would indicate.  There are two ways to create an extra possession.  The first is a successful onside kick.  The second is to have the ball on both the first and last possessions of a half; that is, to run the last drive in the half in which you received the kickoff.  This is only an advantage for the game, however, if your opponent doesn't get the same advantage in the half in which they received the opening kickoff.  This means that end of half drives are of particular importance to both teams in both halves, as they determine whether or not one team will have an advantage in the number of possessions for the game.

A key part of this in the first half is simply having the confidence and aggression to go for the last-minute drive; how may times have you seen a team facing a situation like NU did at the end of the first half against Army simply kneel on the ball for the final minute of the half?  Just in Northwestern's games this year, BC robbed themselves of the chance for an extra possession by first allowing NU to run the clock on the way to a touchdown at the end of the first half and then simply kneeling to end the half.  So, good clock offense will increase the chances of a team getting an extra possession in a game (it will also probably increase the quality of all end of half possessions, but any such effect is strictly gravy compared to an extra possession).

The claim that good clock offense will help in close games seems obvious, but in reality the effect is unclear.  This is because, as Loretta8 noted in his summer series on NU in close games, the category of "close games" lumps several distinct end of game situations into one basket.  Obviously, a good two-minute offense is of no use in defending a small lead late in a game (though it may be useful if the opponent scores to tie or take the lead).  Even in games where a team trails, it may result in just generally increased output-so games that would have been two score losses are now one score, and games that would have been one score losses are now wins.  This should result in a better overall record but not necessarily in better than normal results in games decided by one score.

I am still cautiously supportive of a no-huddle approach as an advantage in close games.  This is because there are very few strategies that, all else equal, should result in exceptional close-game results.  A great running team should be particularly good at grinding out the clock, but will be at a disadvantage when trailing late.  A great passing team will likely have the opposite problem.  A team that combines these will just be a better football team and should be expected to win some games by more and lose some by less, leaving close game performance untouched; if a team is using a generally suboptimal strategy, close game performance is really besides the point.  The same logic applies to defense.  The only strategy likely to uniformly improve close game performance is one that improves performance in one or more type of close game without impairing performance in the others.

No-huddle offenses have this effect for the simple reason that it is much easier to slow an offense down than speed it up.  A no-huddle team that wants to run clock just has to stand around for twenty or thirty more seconds, while a traditional offense that wants to hurry up needs to implement an entirely different method of communicating plays that may restrict their playcalling.  In conclusion, NU's no-huddle approach provides a general advantage by improving the team's chances of gaining an extra possession at the end of a half and minimizing the chance of the opponent doing the same.  Although the effect is not clear, it may also provide a particular advantage in close games by increasing the offense's chances of staging a successful comeback without harming their ability to run out the clock.  Going into a game against a rival that escaped an upset bid last week when a last-minute drive fell short, NU fans should take heart that Northwestern is equipped to take advantage of a similar situation if it arises.