College football’s new clock rule shortens games, forcing adjustments

Chip Kelly, the offensive guru known for his fast-paced spread attack, was not happy Saturday night. His UCLA Bruins led Coastal Carolina 14-6 at halftime, but the tight score didn't bother the coach. He was irked because his offense didn't have the ball nearly as often as he would have liked.

"This new rule — that's crazy. We had four drives in the first half," Kelly said in a halftime interview with ESPN. "This game goes fast. I hope you guys are selling a lot of commercials."

The NCAA tweaked a timing rule in the offseason, and coaches have discovered they'll have to adjust. For the first time since 1967, the clock will no longer stop for officials to reset the chains after a team makes a first down. The exceptions are in the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.

The move, similar to what the NFL uses, was designed to shorten game times that are approaching an average of three-and-a-half hours. The NCAA's hope is to decrease the number of plays per game, thus reducing injury risk.

After the limited Week Zero schedule and one full week, the rules have had an impact. According to the Indianapolis Star, FBS games have averaged 65.7 plays and 3 hours, 23.6 minutes in actual time. That's down slightly from the 2022 totals of 68.7 plays and 3:27.

If Kelly thought the Bruins' game was flying by, that was nothing compared with what transpired two days earlier when UCLA's future Big Ten brethren, Minnesota and Nebraska, matched up.

The Gophers and Cornhuskers played a brisk first half that took only 70 minutes of actual time. Save for Minnesota's half-ending kneel-down after an end-zone interception of the Huskers, each team had the ball only three times. The Gophers, who led 3-0 at intermission, ran 33 first-half plays, the Huskers only 24.

"That first quarter was about 19 minutes long, and it went by really, really quickly for people that run the football, and both teams ran the football," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "So, it's gonna speed the game up for sure."

With the clock change come adjustments, and Fleck acknowledged that coaches must react quickly to how a game is flowing. When Nebraska took a 7-3 lead early in the third quarter, the Gophers responded by relying more heavily on their passing attack. They called 18 pass plays in the first half, 26 in the second. And they needed all of that to pull out a 13-10 victory by scoring 10 points in the final 2:32 in a game that lasted 3:26 of actual time.

"We needed more possessions," Fleck said. "We needed to put more drives together."

That will be important for a Gophers team that so far hasn't run the ball — and dominated the clock — as well as it did the past two years. In both 2021 and 2022, the Gophers ranked third nationally in time of possession at 35:28 and 34:32, respectively, while running the ball 70% and 67% of the time. Imagine how much more time Mohamed Ibrahim and Co. would have drained from the clock had they been playing under the new rule.

Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis pointed to a decreased margin for error under the new rule.

"The game definitely went by a little faster, but we also know that we have to take more advantage of our time of possession," he said. "Driving down the field and not following through with scoring … we love our field-goal kickers, but we'd rather score points, touchdown-wise."

Co-offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. made his debut as the Gophers' primary play-caller against Nebraska, and the new rule hammered home the need to capitalize fully when your offense has the football.

"You have to take advantage of every single drive," he said, "and the importance of that particular drive is more important than ever."