Clemson Intentional Safety: WTF, ESPN?

For those of you who missed Bowden Bowl IX and/or have lives, here’s a recap.

The home underdog Clemson Tigers, having pretty much dominated the Florida State Seminoles, held a 24-3 lead late in the third quarter. They lined up for a routine punt, but the center’s snap flew over the punter’s head, forcing him to chase down the ball. Rather than simply fall on the ball, or attempt some high-risk desperation play, the punter made a bee line toward his own end line, conceding a safety to the Seminoles. Seriously, he sprinted about thirty yards to accomplish this.

The ESPN announcing team immediately lauded this as a brilliant play.


I realize that taking an intentional safety can be a strategic move in certain situations, but was this really one of those situations?

Absolute worst case scenario, Florida State scores on the errant snap, making the score 24-10. Clemson gets the ball back, and can conceivably milk the clock a few minutes in to the fourth quarter. Instead, the safety makes the score 24-5, but Clemson now must kick the ball to FSU from the thirty yard line, giving the Seminoles (who already had some momentum going in the second half) superior field position in their quest for a touchdown to cut the score to 24-12.

As it happened, the 'Noles did score a touchdown (their first of the game) on the drive, but inexplicably attempted a 2 point conversion. The attempt failed, leaving the score 24-11.

The rest of the game* is what it is, but seriously, can anyone justify the announcers’ contention that the Clemson punter made a smart play? It looked to me like he was trying to save his own skin, rather than making some stategic decision.

*Following their maiden touchdown, The Seminoles’ defense throttled the Tigers deep in Clemson territory, and on the resulting change of possesion scored another touchdown to cut the lead to 24-18. However, Clemson earned the momentum back, used the clock, and seemingly retook control of the game with five minutes left. FSU had one last chance in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but Clemson’s defense was up to the task, and the Tigers escaped with a wipe-yer-brow 24-18 win.

I’m not sure about the sprint to the end zone for the saftey, but I can explain why they might have went for 2 instead of the XP. If they get it, they only need a TDw/2pt conv and a FG to tie versus 2 TD. Not getting anypoints on the conversion attempt doesn’t really hurt them.

No matter what the score is, I don’t believe 2 pt conversions should ever be tried in the first half. That’s far too early to start playing what if games with the numbers.

As far as the safety went, it depends where the ball would have wound up had he tried to run forward. If it would have been inside the 10, I’ll give them 2 pts. If outside the 20, I’ll try to hold them to a FG and get the ball back. Sure it’s an additional point, but you get the ball.

From the OP:

“…held a 24-3 lead late in the third quarter.”

That’s what any punter is coached to do when deep in his own territory and the snap gets past them. You don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s better to concede 2 pts than let the opponent get a quick score and a major momentum shift (that part’s key).

Whoops! My mistake. Sorry.

As a Columbia native, please allow me to say how happy it makes me to see those three words in any context.

I’ll go further and say 2 point conversions should not be attempted in the third quarter either. Or even early in the fourth quarter. You have no idea how the scoring will turn out. Michigan missed 2 two-point conversions. They would have been tied if they would have made the one-point PATs.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘brilliant play’, but it is strategically sound. If the punter does NOT run back for the safety, FSU gets the ball deep in Clemson territory and even if the Clemson defense holds FSU can kick a short field goal.

If the punter runs back and gives up the safety, he can at least put the ball into FSU territory on the ensuing free kick and trust the defense to hold them to a punt.

That’s not the way it happened in this instance, but that’s the thinking overall.

Hey all, OP checking back in with some corrections, clarifications, and reiterations.

Perhaps inexplicably was the wrong word. Among other things, I’m pretty sure Bobby Bowden has a little more experience in football coaching strategy than I do.

In my defense, however, The Almighty Chart says to go for 1 when down by 13. Although possibly Bowden Sr. was using This Chart.

More to my main point,

(Bolding mine in all three quotes)

Although my OP did contain this disclaimer:

it was also kind of vague on the Tigers’ exact field position at the time

Why? Because I didn’t have the exact stats in front of me when I went off on my rant. As I formed my original opinion, I remember Clemson being pretty close to mid-field, and the punter’s 30 yard sprint, but I wasn’t sure. So, I looked it up. (CS is still technically part of the Straight Dope, right?).

In reality, the play in question occured with 2:20 remaining in the third quarter from the Florida State 49 yard line.

Assuming the ball traveled 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage after the botched snap before the punter assumed control of it, my “30 yard sprint” recollection seems accurate.

Given these new facts, of which I was apparently aware of the whole time, can anyone still justify this as a brilliant play?

Keep in mind, however, that my original WTF was not directed at the punter. Having played some football myself I pretty much understand his thought process; The initial panic mode when the play blows up, the realization while chasing down the errant snap that my team is up by 3 touchdowns, the safety of the end zone right there, my momentum is already carrying me that direction, damn those guys are huge, RUN!!!.

And, if it were just a matter of 2 points, it would probably be a sound idea. It’s the free kick and loss (or technically the opposition’s gain) of momentum that throws a shoe in the machinery.

No, my original reaction (which now seems overblown 24 hours later) was against the announcers. They immediately jumped upon the “great play” angle, and stuck with that story against any contrary logic like maybe The Facts.

It kinda reminded me of the basketball play where a guy who is falling out of bounds calls a timeout in mid-air, saving his team a turnover. The first guy to ever do this was showered in accolades, and now guys all over the country do it regardless of circumstances (like maybe that timeout you wasted was more important than a simple loss of posession?).

In this case, there’s probably some canon for an intentional safety being a genius stroke (Bill Belichick, I’m looking in your direction), so now every intentional safety has to be as such.
::exhales:: I think I covered everything.

I second that coaches I think will learn now after the App. State game that you shouldn’t go for two before the fourth quarter.

It traveled farther than 20 yards . . . more like 30 or 35. That’s normal when a snap sails over the punter’s head. The ball travels backward 15 yards to the punter, and if it’s over his head, it will travel backward at least another 15 before it hits the ground. Then, it will sometimes keep bouncing. The punter picked the ball up somewhere between the 15 and the 20, with his momentum going backward.

At that point, would a flop to the ground have been a better play? Look at it from FSU’s standpoint–would you rather be behind 24-3 with the ball on the oppo 15-yard-line, or 24-5 with the ball on your own 40 (average position after a free kick)? I think I’d take the former.

Nope. If they haven’t learned it by now, they never will. The urge to go for two when you’re down by five is overwhelming, irresistible, and moronic.