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Tony Elliott revisits late timeouts, onside kick: Special-teams errors, again, proving costly

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Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Elliott, at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, defended his decisions to burn two timeouts on punts, then try an onside kick after a late UVA touchdown, in the fourth quarter of the 31-28 loss to North Carolina.

First, to the timeouts, and a reporter asking Elliott if there were situations where it’s better to take a five-yard delay-of-game penalty and save the timeout.

Elliott, as you may be aware now, isn’t wired to give short answers.

“Obviously, I know there was some people that saw me get upset. But my frustration was not with the players, it was with the staff and miscommunication and wanting to take a chance, you know, that we didn’t need to take, take a chance in that situation,” Elliott said.

From what we’ve come to understand since, the first of the two fourth-quarter timeouts was the result of special-teams coordinator Keith Gaither setting the punt unit for a fake punt, which really wouldn’t make a lot of sense, given the situation – with Virginia facing a fourth-and-2 at its own 22.

“We get so low on the play clock. Keith was mentioning, Hey, coach, we probably need to get out of this. So, I make the timeout there because, in essence, it was a call that was pretty risky,” Elliott said.

Yes, a fake punt at your own 22, if that was the play call, is pretty risky.

But why burn a timeout, if you can take the five yards and kick it from the 17?

“We just weren’t in the right call. So rather than back it up, we would have been backed up if we went with the play call, so I had to call the timeout to get us in a better call,” Elliott said.

Or you could simply wave your arms frantically to get the unit to not snap the ball and take the five yards to get into a better call.

Either would have worked. The latter preserves the timeout.

The second burnt timeout, Elliott said, “was just a substitution, communication, just trying to get a guy that’s been playing a lot of snaps, get him a sub, but we didn’t get it communicated,” Elliott said.

Virginia had the ball at its own 32 on the second punt.

Five yards would have moved the line of scrimmage back to the 27.

Again, could have just taken the delay of game and five yards, and punted.

“My frustration is because we have a lot of layers, we have a lot of individuals that have eyes and responsibilities from a special-teams standpoint, and we didn’t get it communicated. And that’s not on the players. That’s on the coaches. And so, that’s where my frustration was,” Elliott said.

The coach then defended the call to have the kickoff unit try an onside kick after an 8-yard Brennan Armstrong TD run with 3:24 to go that made it a one-score game.

By that point, because of the two pre-punt timeouts, UVA was out of timeouts. As he did immediately after the game, Elliott “you have to onside kick because you have no timeouts.”

“The clock management is going to tell you, with no timeouts, they can run about two minutes and 30, two minutes and 40 seconds off the clock with their four downs,” Elliott said.

“Even if you force a stop, you’re going to get the ball back with about 30 seconds,” Elliott said.

“If we have two timeouts, you put it on the defense, say, hey, boys we’re going to kick ’em deep, and let’s get a stop, use the timeouts, and now maybe we get the ball back midfield or just on our side of the field with a minute 20 with no timeouts. That’s a better situation than 30 seconds with no timeouts, and you’re probably going to be pinned deep,” Elliott said.

We can quibble on that.

There was 3:24 on the clock after the Armstrong TD.

Kick it deep, into the end zone, so no time comes off the clock with a return, get the stop, and you get the ball back in the area of your own 25 to 30 with around 45 seconds left on the clock, needing to move the ball 40 to 45 yards to set up a field goal that could send the game to OT.

This isn’t easy, but it’s doable.

The drive that led to the final Armstrong TD took 59 seconds to go 71 yards in seven plays.

On the flip side, the success rate on onside kicks is in the area of 20 percent.

Go for the onside kick, and you’re giving up the final 3:24 available to you to try to win the game on a play that has a one-in-five chance of being successful.

Kick deep, and you force Carolina to get a first down on its side of the field, and if you get the stop, to punt from its side.

A lot of things can happen there: a bad snap, a blocked punt, a shank, a big return.

You give yourself at least four more plays to make a play, as opposed to putting everything onto one play that isn’t likely to work.

But enough about that. This is the kind of thing they’re paying Tony Elliott, not me, $4 million a year to think through.

Chris Graham

I write books, two on UVA basketball, one on pro wrestling, one on politics, which is getting to be like pro wrestling more and more each day. I've finished three marathons, but I'm over that. Oh, and I'm a progressive who voted for Biden, but I'm over that, too. (We need somebody else in 2024!) Want to reach me? Try [email protected]