It’s the first drive of the game, and Ohio State’s on defense against TCU. The Buckeyes will struggle for most of the game with the Horned Frogs’ up-tempo offense, giving up several big explosions, but they aren’t the only ones who have to catch up.
While the Buckeyes have to adjust to the pace, so does the broadcast crew, and so do millions of viewers.
On that drive, TCU snaps the ball within 9, 11, 12, and 13 seconds of the preceding plays. Play-by-play man Chris Fowler calls it “hyperspeed.” The audience misses the snap of one play because ESPN is showing a replay of another.
They miss another (in which an offside penalty was committed by the Buckeyes) because the cameras are showing TCU’s offensive coordinator and commenting on how fast things are going. That’s right — the offense is moving so fast, ESPN can’t even fully discuss how fast the offense is moving.
Fowler asks partner Kirk Herbstreit if the Buckeyes could have expected this, and Herbstreit talks about how this speed is nearly impossible to replicate in practice. Everyone is on their heels.
It’s now been a little over a decade since college football was swept by offenses running at scorching tempo for prolonged stretches.
Oregon, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Clemson showed you can be elite while using pace as a weapon, and even Alabama came around to the merits of tempo. We’re all pretty much used to it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s normal.
Just as offenses have changed defenses forever, they’ve changed broadcasters too. They have been trying to tell the tempo story for a long time. FOX ran a shot clock for Oklahoma during the 2009 BCS title game.
But even though they know the gameplan, and the Saturday Night Football crew has broadcast dozens of games with teams moving quickly in its 14 years on the job, they can still get caught off guard.
“As much as I know Gary Patterson and his team run tempo,” producer Bill Bonnell tells me, “they were probably running the quickest tempo game I’ve seen since Oregon, the days of Chip Kelly.”
Tempo makes you sacrifice things on the field. In the production truck, storytelling is what gets pared down first.
“I remember having this funny discussion with my producer saying, hey once the team has stopped someone on third down, it takes about 20 seconds for the punt team to run out there to do the punt. There’s a window,” sideline reporter Holly Rowe told me. “After the punt is a window. After a kickoff is a window, and really trying to reformat windows for reports. And it’s not just story, it’s injury updates.”
Rowe compares games as presented now versus in the early 2000s to listening to a podcast on 2.5 speed. She remembers being on the field for Baylor’s furious 21-point comeback in 11 minutes to beat TCU. She says her brain, that of a versatile broadcasting veteran, couldn’t fully process what was going on.
“I kinda joke that we’ve Twitterized,” Rowe said. “You have to be that barebones minimum with what you’re describing, with the story you’re telling. The time’s just not there.
“My bosses will get mad at me for putting this in there, but I’ve been begging our ESPN bosses to do fewer promos. Instead of promoting something happening next week five times, hey, give us a little more storytelling opportunities. I’ve been begging for years, hey these teams are going really fast, we have very little time to tell stories.”
Analysis gets cut down as well.
“Whenever we do a game where one or particularly both teams want to play tempo, we talk about it in a production meeting,” color analyst Todd Blackledge says. “We say, let’s adapt and adjust to the speed of the game. Let’s not worry about doing any replays early on. Let’s just get into the flow of the game, and then we’ll adjust as it goes. You just have to approach it differently.”
There are ways to bridge the replay gap:
But even while doing the analysis here, CBS’ Gary Danielson wasn’t able to complete his thought because Auburn ran a play in 13 seconds. He says, “with a hurry up offense, it’s hard to show you what happens.”
Rowe says audiences are used to a second screen experience and getting more information thrown at them, so broadcasts are evolving with the audience.
“You can talk over plays, and obviously nobody’s missing anything, and have a discussion,” play-by-play analyst Adam Amin says, drawing a comparison to basketball, another sport with broadcasts evolving to match the speed of competition. “But if you’re just calling the action in a high-tempo game, you’re pretty much just identifying who and how much. Here’s [James] Harden for 3, oh that’ll be 2 foul shots, that’s the fourth foul.
“It’s the same thing in football. [Kyler] Murray to throw, five yards to CeeDee Lamb, and now they’re back up to the line of scrimmage. You’re just identifying who and how much.”