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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 2

It was a wild weekend in the Big Ten. Four of the six conference games were decided by a touchdown or less, and all of those close games means we have plenty of 4th down decisions to analyze.

If you're new to the Big Ten 4th Down Calculator, I've used Minitab Statistical Software to create a model to determine the correct 4th down decision. And for the rest of the college football season, I'll use that model to track every 4th down decision in Big Ten Conference games.

One caveat before we begin. The decision the calculator gives isn’t meant to be written in stone. In hypothesis testing, it’s important to understand the difference between statistical and practical significance. A test that concludes there is a statistically significant result doesn’t imply that your result has practical consequences. You should use your specialized knowledge to determine whether the difference is practically significant.

The same line of thought should be applied to the 4th down calculator. Coaches should also consider other factors, like the game situation and the strengths and weaknesses of their team. But the 4th down calculator still provides a very strong starting place for the decision making! In fact, we can use the model to create a handy-dandy chart that gives a general idea of what your 4th down decision should be!

4th Down Decision Chart

Okay, enough of the pregame show, let’s get to the games!

Michigan 28 - Maryland 0

We'll start with the blowouts, and save the good stuff until later. For each game I'll break the analysis into two sections, 4th down decisions in the first 3 quarters, and 4th down decisions in the 4th quarter. The reason to separate the two is because in the first 3 quarters, coaches should be trying to maximize the amount of points they score. But in the 4th quarter, they should be maximizing their win probability. To calculate win probability, I’m using this formula from Pro Football Reference.

In this game Maryland clearly was routed. But could more aggressive 4th down decision-making have made a difference?

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Maryland

8

0 8 0 0 0

Michigan

9

1 4 3 2

0.93


Every single one of Maryland's 4th down decisions resulted in a punt, and the 4th down calculator agreed with every single one of them. That about sums up this game for Maryland. Six of their eight 4th down distances were 9 yards or more. Maryland never really had the opportunity to play aggressive.

Michigan's 4th down decisions agreed with the model for the most part, including two attempts to convert on 4th down in Maryland territory. They successfully converted one of the 2 attempts, which later led to a field goal. And the 4th down they didn't convert? Maryland went 3 and out on the next possession.

The only disagreement with the model came right before halftime. Michigan had a 4th and 1 on the Maryland 14 yard line, and they kicked the field goal instead of going for it. The decision to kick cost the Wolverines almost a full point in expected points lost. And at the time the score was only 3-0, so the game was very much in doubt. Now, I'm sure the fact that there was only a minute left in the half factored into the decision. But a first down would have stopped the clock and given Michigan the ball inside the Maryland 13-yard line. I think there would have still been plenty of time to score a touchdown (and still attempt a field goal if they didn't score). It didn't end up mattering, but Michigan should be more aggressive in the future.

By the time this game reached the 4th quarter, Michigan held a 21-0 lead, which they soon increased to 28-0. Maryland did end up punting on a 4th and 1 with 5 minutes left, but since they were behind by 4 touchdowns, the decision really didn't matter. Let's move on to the next game.

Northwestern 27 - Minnesota 0

Northwestern continued their undefeated season with an impressive shutout win against Minnesota. But their 4th down decision-making? Not as impressive. In fact, the 4th down calculator disagreed with the first 5 4th down decisions in this game.

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Northwestern

6

4 2 3 1 2.34
Minnesota

7

2 5 0 2

1.13

Lucky for Northwestern, this game wasn't close, because they left over 2 points on the table! In fact, Northwestern made sub-optimal decision on their first 3 possessions.! On 4th and 3 at the Minnesota 8, they kicked a field goal instead of going for it. Inside the 10 yard line, teams should be much more aggressive on 4th down, the reason being that even if you fail, the other team has the ball deep in their own territory. If Minnesota were to start at their own 8 yard line, Northwestern would actually be more likely to score next. It's really a win/win. You either score a touchdown, or you fail but are more likely to score next anyway. Kicking the field goal is giving away free points. This decision alone cost Northwestern almost a full point!

Their next possession, Northwestern punted on 4th and 1. The location on the field does not matter, as the 4th down calculator will always say to go for it. And their 3rd possession, they kicked another field goal on 4th and 3. This decision wasn't as bad as the first, since they were at the Minnesota 23-yard line and not inside the 10. But as the home team, they should have been more aggressive. Oh, and that second field goal attempt? They missed it.

Minnesota punted on 4th and 3 from the Northwestern 40 when the calculator would have said to go for it. But in their next possession, they were actually too aggressive! On 4th and 7 from the Northwestern 31, they decided to go for it instead of kicking a 48 yard field goal. From 40 yards or more, Minnesota kicker Ryan Santoso is 7 for 14 in his career. The 4th down calculator assumes a 49 yard field goal will be made 55% of the time. So those numbers are pretty close. Now, I didn't see the game, so perhaps it was windy or raining. If for some reason the coach didn't think his chance of making the field goal was close to 50%, the calculator agrees with going for it over punting. But if not, Minnesota should have attempted the field goal.

Northwestern had this game in hand by the 4th quarter, so we'll move on to the close games.

Ohio State 34 - Indiana 27

Before the season I wrote about how Indiana should never punt. If only they had listened, they might have pulled the upset. 

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Ohio State

9

2 5 3 1 0.73
Indiana

12

2 9 1 2 2

The calculator agreed with 8 of Indiana's 9 decisions to punt, so maybe that "never punting" thing was a little too extreme. But there is one punt that absolutely crushed the soul of the Big Ten 4th down calculator. Late in the 2nd quarter, Indiana had a 4th and 1 at midfield, and they went for it! As a 21 point underdog to the #1 ranked team in the country, you have to play aggressively. And part of that is going for it on every 4th and 1. Indiana failed on a 4th and 1 running a fake punt earlier, but they converted this time. The 4th down calculator was pleased with both calls. But then, 3 plays later, Indiana had a 4th and 2 on the Ohio State 39...and punted. After they just went for a 4th and 1 at midfield! You're scared of Ohio State taking over at their own 39, but not at midfield? I don't get it. Assuming Indiana downs the ball at the 10 yard line, that decision cost them just over a full point. But the punt actually went into the end zone for a touchback. With Ohio State starting at the 20 yard line, the decision to punt actually cost them 1.7 points! You can't make decisions like that if you're going to upset the defending national champions.

Indiana's other 4th-down disagreement was kicking a field goal on 4th and 2 from the Ohio State 15 yard line instead of going for it. This again cost Indiana almost a full point. Indiana did a good job of being aggressive on 4th and 1. But they should have done the same on 4th and 2.  

Ohio State's only poor decision was punting on 4th and 1 from their own 16-yard line. That cost the most of the 0.73 points you see in the table. However, they completely made up for it later in the game. On 4th and 1 from their own 35, they went for it when most coaches always punt. The result was a 65-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott. That decision may have saved Ohio State's season. 

The one 4th-quarter decision I'll discuss is Indiana's decision to punt on 4th and 6 from their own 35 down a touchdown with only 6 minutes left in the game. The win probability calculator didn't like Indiana's chances of winning either way, but they favored going for it, giving Indiana a 3.4% chance of winning by going for it, and only a 2.7% chance by punting. And when you factor in the fact that Ohio State averaged 8 yards per rush on the game, there was a reasonable chance Indiana would never get the ball back. With 4th and 6 being pretty manageable, Indiana should have gone for it. Too often you see a coach punt on 4th and manageable, only to go for it on a much longer distance later (if they even get the ball back at all). That didn't happen in this case, as Indiana got the ball back and didn't face a 4th down until the last play of the game. But it doesn't change that fact that although it was close, going for it gave Indiana the best chance of winning.    

Michigan State 24 - Purdue 21

This game had blow out written all over it early. And then, well, it didn't. But Michigan State was able to hold on, and avoid the dreaded SPARTY NO!

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Purdue

6

1 4 0 2 0.24
Michigan St

5

2 4 1 0

0.51

Purdue's disagreement was actually one where the calculator thought they were too aggressive. Instead of kicking a field goal on 4th and 5 from the Michigan State 30, they decided to go for it. But the difference in expected points is only 0.24, plus Purdue knows their kicker's ability better than me. And when you factor in that they were 21-point underdogs playing on the road, the decision to be aggressive and go for it really isn't bad at all. 

Michigan State's worst decision came on a punt on 4th and 2 from midfield. The calculator says it's actually a pretty close call, with going for it only resulting in 0.19 more expected points. But in reality this play was a disaster for Michigan State. The punter mishandled the snap, and Purdue ended up getting the ball at the Michigan State 21 yard line. This set up the Boilermakers first touchdown, sparking the comeback. The next possession Michigan State attempted a 35 yard field goal on 4th and 4 instead of going for it (which is what the calculator suggests for a home team). The result was another disaster for Michigan State, as they missed the field goal. Then 3 plays later, Purdue scored another touchdown making it a one score game.

In the 4th quarter, Michigan attempted another field goal on 4th and 4 from Purdue 13 up by 7 points. Using expected points, Michigan State should have went for it. But in the 4th quarter win probability is what teams should be concerned with. And the win probability for both decisions are approximately 97% (it's so high because it takes into account that Michigan State was a 21.5 point favorite), so there wasn't a bad choice. Michigan State decided to kick the field goal, they made it, and it turned out to be the game winning score.

Illinois 14 - Nebraska 13

Poor Nebraska. This is now the 3rd game that they've lost on (just about) the final play of the game. They're a better team than their 2-3 record indicates. Unfortunately, that probably doesn't make Husker fans feel any better.

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Nebraska

8

2 6 2 0 0.82
Illinois

10

2 6 2 2

0.63

On Nebraska's first drive, they punted on 4th and 1 from their own 31 yard line. Of course the calculator thinks they should have gone for it, especially considering Nebraska's rushing game is their strength. And this is about the same spot on the field that Ohio State went for it on 4th and 1, which worked out pretty well for them. Nebraska has lost all 3 close games they've played in. If you maximize your points early, then you might not being playing in such a tight game late.

On their 2nd possession, Illinois decided to kick a 50 yard field goal on 4th and 4. Think about it this way. The probability of converting a 4th and 4 is about 46%. The probability of making a 50 yard field goal is about 52%. And when you factor in that one of those decisions leaves open the possibility of scoring a touchdown, it really should be an easy decision. But Illinois decided to kick anyway. And, you guessed it, they missed the field goal.

The calculator does want to applaud Illinois for their 4th down decision on their next possession though. With a 4th and 1 at the Nebraska 10, they decided to go for it. This increased their expected value by over 1.5 points when compared to kicking the field goal! They didn't convert, but Nebraska went 3 and out, and Illinois started their next possession at the Nebraska 43 yard line. This is why going for it so close to the goal line should be an easy decision. Even if you fail, there is a good chance you're starting your next possession in great field position. Of course, Illinois used that great field position to miss a field goal. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

Now let's jump ahead to the 4th quarter, where some of the 4th down decisions were...well, let's be nice and say "puzzling."

4th Down Decisions in the 4th quarter

Team

4th Down Distance

Yards to End Zone

Calculator Decision

Coach Decision

Win Probability Go For It or Field Goal

Win Probability Punt

Illinois

1

61 Go For It Punt 15% 11%
Illinois 10 80 Go For It Punt 4.1% 3.7%
Nebraska 7 27 Field Goal Go For It 99.6% (FG) 99.4% (Go)

With just under 9 minutes left in the game, Illinois had a 4th and 1 from their own 39 yard line, and decided to punt. They were down 13-7 at the time, so odds are you're going to have to go for it on 4th down at some point. And there is no easier 4th down conversion to make than 4th and 1. But Illinois decided to punt, lowering their win probability by 4%. And it's even worse when you remember that Nebraska's rushing offense is perfect for running out the clock. Sure enough, in just 2 plays Nebraska advanced the ball to the Illinois 36 yard line, almost the same spot they would have started if Illinois failed on 4th and 1.

After a Nebraska punt, Illinois got the ball back and quickly found itself in a 4th and 10 on their own 20 with less than 5 minutes in the game. At this point the Illinois situation is looking bleak, giving them a 4.1% chance to win by going for it, and only a 3.7% chance to win by punting. I bet they wish they could have that 4th and 1 decision back. Anyway, this decision was a lot closer, but the win probability calculator favors going for it. You just can't be sure you'll get another chance, and even if you do, there might not be enough time to realistically score. But Illinois decided to punt. And luckily for them, Nebraska sailed way ahead of them in the "puzzling" decision making contest.

Nebraska had a 3rd and 7 at the Illinois 27 with about a minute left. Yes, this is a 3rd down, but it has to be mentioned. Illinois was out of timeouts, so a simple running play would have kept the clock running, eating up precious time. Plus a couple yards would make a field goal attempt easier. Instead, Nebraska threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock with 55 seconds left. But they were still in the driver's seat, as you can clearly see by the win probabilities above. On 4th and 7, Nebraska could end the game two different ways:

  • A successful 44 yard field goal, which Big Ten kickers make approximately 63% of the time
  • A successful conversion on 4th and 7, which Big Ten teams make approximately 34% of the time

It seems like the clear decision is to kick the field goal. And for his career, Nebraska kicker Drew Brown is 5 for 11 (45%) on kicks between 40 and 49. That's lower than the Big Ten average (though we must beware of the danger of small sample sizes), but still better then the chance of converting on 4th down. Plus, he had already made a 39 yard field goal earlier in the game. Is 44 yards really that much farther than 39 yards? But for some reason Nebraska decided to go for it, and they were unsuccessful. Then Illinois went down and scored the game winning touchdown with 10 seconds left. All Nebraska needed was competent clock management skills and better 4th down decision making, and they should have easily won this game. But instead I present to you: 

Mike Riley, current leader for Worst Big Ten 4th Down Decision of the Year.  

Iowa 10 - Wisconsin 6

Now that's a Big Ten score if I've ever seen one. You'd expect a game with a score like that to have a ridiculous amount of punts. Well, in this case you'd be wrong.

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Wisconsin

5

2 2 3 0 0.62
Iowa

6

0 3 2 1 0

Through the first 3 quarters, there were as many field goal attempts as punts. And it was two of Wisconsin's field goal attempts that the 4th down calculator disagreed with. The first one wasn't too bad. On 4th and 5 from the Iowa 28, the Badgers kicked a field goal when the calculator would have said to go for it. However, the difference in expected points is only 0.07. So either choice was actually fine. But later in the game, Wisconsin should have been more aggressive when they kicked a 42 yard field goal on 4th and 3. They gave up just over half a point by deciding to kick. And to make matters worse, they missed the field goal. And as we saw later in the game, those were points they desperately needed.

From the 4th down calculators perspective, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called a perfect game. On 4th and 2 from the Wisconsin 8 yard line, he decided to go for the first down instead of kicking a field goal. The play was unsuccessful, but the gambit paid off in the long run, as the next score in the game was an Iowa touchdown.

Then things got very interesting in the 4th quarter.

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team

4th Down Distance

Yards to End Zone

Calculator Decision

Coach Decision

Win Probability Go For It or Field Goal

Win Probability Punt

Wisconsin

8

33 Field Goal Punt

43%

41%
Iowa

1

75 Go For It Go For It 72% 71%
Iowa 2 87 Punt Punt 65.5% 65.8%
Wisconsin 16 40 Punt Punt 19% 22%

There were some huge decisions made early in the 4th quarter, but we see that the win probabilities between those decisions weren't actually too different. Things started with Wisconsin punting from the Iowa 33-yard line. Of the three options, kicking the field goal results in the highest win probability. And if Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst didn't trust his kicker to make a 50 yard field goal, going for the first down gave him a win probability of 42%, which is still higher than punting. But you'll notice we're talking about a difference of 1 and 2 percent. Chryst should have been more aggressive, but the decision to punt wasn't an awful one.

In the very next series, Kirk Ferentz made a decision that everybody would crush him for if it hadn't worked, but would forget about it if it did work. Up 10-6 on the 25 yard line, he went for it on 4th and 1. You'll see that the calculator favored going for it, but only barely. Luckily for Kirk, Iowa picked up the first down. However, they ended up fumbling the very next play and Wisconsin recovered, setting them up nicely for a game winning touchdown. But then Wisconsin fumbled on 2nd and goal from 1 yard line, and Iowa recovered. I like to think of that as the football gods rewarding Ferentz for his aggressive 4th down decisions.

After recovering the Wisconsin fumble, Iowa had a 4th and 2 from their own 13-yard line. Kirk went for it on 4th and 1 earlier, so would he do the same on 4th and 2? You'll see that there was basically no difference in the win probability between punting and going for it. So neither decision would have been a bad one. Ferentz decided to punt, and on the ensuing drive, Wisconsin had a 4th and 16 with 3 and a half minutes left. You hate to see a losing team punting in opponent territory with so little time left, but 4th and 16 is so hard to convert that punting was actually the correct decision. Wisconsin was able to get the ball back at midfield and drove all the way down to the Iowa 16 yard line, but they weren't able to score the game-winning touchdown. So with the Iowa win and the excellent 4th down decision making, I'm now declaring:

Kirk Ferentz, current leader for Big Ten 4th Down Decision Maker of the Year.  

Summary

Each week, I’ll summarize the times coaches disagreed with the 4th down calculator and the difference in expected points between the coach’s decision and the calculator’s decision. I’ll do this only for the 1st 3 quarters since I’m tracking expected points and not win probability. I also want to track decisions made on 4th and 1, and decisions made between midfield and the opponent’s 35 yard line. I’ll call this area the “Gray Zone.” These will be pretty sparse now, but will fill up as the season goes along. Then we can easily compare the actual outcomes of different decisions in similar situations.

Have anything else you think I should track? Let me know and I’ll add it!

Team Summary

Team Number of Disagreements Total Expected Points Lost
Northwestern 4 2.34
Indiana 2 2
Minnesota 2 1.13
Michigan 1 0.93
Nebraska 2 0.82
Penn State 2 0.8
Ohio State 2 0.73
Illinois 2 0.63
Wisconsin 2 0.62
Michigan St 2 0.51
Rutgers 1 0.3
Purdue 1 0.24
Maryland 0 0
Iowa 0 0

 

4th and 1

Yards To End Zone

Punts

Average Next Score After Punt

Go for It

Average Next Score after Go for it

Field Goals

Average Next Score After FG

75-90

1

7

0

0

*

*

50-74

3

3.7 2 3.5

*

*

25-49

0

0

2

-1.5

0

0

1-24

*

* 2 -5 1 3

 

The Gray Zone (4th downs 35-50 yards to the end zone)

4th Down Distance

Punts

Average Next Score After Punt

Go for It

Average Next Score after Go for it

Field Goals

Average Next Score After FG

1

0

0

3

-1

0

0

2-5

7 0.57

0

0

0

0

6-9

2

0

0

0

0

0

10+

6

-0.67

0

0

0

0

 

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