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The Dream of the 30-Minute Drive

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Against Temple, Navy gave me hope that what once seemed impossible can be accomplished!

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

My broken brain likes to imagine a football scenario that is technically possible but practically nonviable: the 30-minute drive. This theory holds that a team could receive the opening kickoff and, through a combination of slow pace, short gains, helpful penalties, and rulebook savvy, hold on to it for the entirety of the first half.

To achieve a 30-minute drive, a team would have to avoid the six ways a drive can end:

  • Throwing an interception or losing a fumble
  • Attempting a field goal
  • Punting
  • Turning the ball over on downs
  • Scoring a touchdown
  • Taking a safety

While I’ve accepted that I may never see this glorious feat happen, two teams give me hope: Army and Navy. The Midshipmen already hold the NCAA record for longest drive (14:26) thanks to their display of horology vampirism in the 2004 Emerald Bowl. Army had a drive against Middle Tennessee this season that devoured nearly twelve-and-a-half minutes of game clock.

Both of those possessions covered 99 yards, however, which brings us to the paradox of the 30-minute drive. We want the offense to stay on the field, and to do that, they’ll need to pick up first downs. But the more first downs they pick up, the harder it will eventually become to stay on the field. They’ll get to the goal line, where the line to gain also ends the drive. We therefore need the offense to get first downs without moving the ball downfield much.

I have always assumed pulling this off would require opportune penalties. Here’s one simple example:

The offense starts on its own 20-yard line. On first down, the quarterback is sacked for a loss of ten yards, which gives us second and 20 with the clock running. On second down, the offense gets flagged for delay of game. It’s second and 25 now, and the clock starts on the official’s whistle. The offense runs the ball for no gain, giving us third and 25 with time still ticking. The quarterback gets sacked again on that play, but there’s a facemask penalty against the defense. We’re now right back at first and ten on the 20, having burned off a few minutes in the process. Do that over and over, and the offense can burn off all 30 minutes of the first half.

(The truly fevered version of this has the other team doing the exact same thing in the second half, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

In their win over Temple, Navy had one drive that makes me think maybe, just maybe, the dream isn’t impossible.

Your eyes do not deceive you: Navy stayed on the field for over nine minutes, despite averaging 1.73 yards per play on that possession. No play they ran gained more than six yards, and perhaps more impressively, the Midshipmen did not benefit from any defensive penalties. Navy converted two fourth downs to keep this drive going, and this slow crawl to nowhere only stopped because quarterback Dalen Morris took a sack on 3rd and 11 to force Navy to attempt a 50 yard field goal.

Rewatching this drive, Navy doesn’t really seem to be trying to bleed the clock. They work slowly and methodically; on nearly every play, they come to the line, get set, stop to look at the sideline for a signal, and then snap the ball. But six of those snaps came with ten seconds or more on the play clock, and they didn’t stall for time on the field goal attempt in the slightest. And Navy had to use two timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties on this possession; if they were truly focused on keeping the ball away from Temple; they’d have been ready to go once the play clock was almost up, not stopping the action to gather themselves.

This drive was almost soothing in its slow, methodical approach, like watching a skilled artisan make something by hand. This carved bowl you made me was delightful, Navy, and so were the hand-pulled noodles you served in it.

If Navy can take nine minutes to go 26 yards, simple math suggests they can pull off the 30-minute drive. A 99-yard drive is 3.8x longer than this one, and 3.8 x 9 minutes = a little over 34 minutes. Again, that’s without any penalties keeping the drive going. Just moderate rushing gain after moderate rushing gain, lulling the defense into a sleepy rhythm until they look up and realize the entire first half has disappeared right under their noses.

That, my friends, is the perfect crime.