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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 4

Week 4 in the Big Ten featured a couple blowouts, an insane comeback, and the worst punt in the history of recorded time. But before we get to all that, here's my weekly blurb on what exactly the 4th down calculator is. 

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. However, 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.

Apply the same line of thought to the 4th down calculator. Coaches should also consider other factors, but the 4th down calculator still provides a starting point for the decision making! 

I'll break the analysis for each game into two sections: 4th down decisions in the first 3 quarters, and 4th down decisions in the 4th quarter. In the first 3 quarters, coaches should try to maximize the points they score. But in the 4th quarter, they should maximize their win probability. To calculate win probability, I’m using this formula from Pro Football Reference.

Wisconsin 24 - Purdue 7

While this was not the most entertaining of games, it did give us something the Big Ten 4th down calculator has yet to see.

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 0 5 0 1 0

Wisconsin

3 0 2 1 0 0


For the first time ever, the calculator didn't disagree with a single 4th down decision made by either team. Of course, that doesn't give me much to talk about here, so I'll point out Purdue's decision where they decided to go for it. They had a 4th and 1 on the Wisconsin 20 yard line. Announcers say all the time that you have to "take the points" in this situation (even though Big Ten kickers make a 37 yard field goal only 75% of the time, so there is no guarantee of points either way). But kicking a field goal in this situation is a really bad decision. On average, you'll score about one additional point by going for it over kicking.

But it's actually even more than that.

When calculating the expected value on 4th down, the calculator assumes you only gain the yardage needed to get the 1st down. But when a team converts they'll usually gain more yards than they need, improving their field position and increasing their expected points even more than the calculator accounts for. This makes the case for going for it even stronger. Luckily for Purdue, they made the correct decision, gaining 4 yards on 4th and 1. And five plays later, they were in the end zone for the touchdown.

"Take the points," indeed.

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team Time Left 4th Down Distance Yards to End Zone Calculator Decision Coach Decision Win Probability Go For It Win Probability FG
Wisconsin 7:16 1 1 Go for it Go for it 99.7% 99.6%

There is only one 4th down decision in the 4th quarter worth talking about. Wisconsin was up by 10 and had a 4th and goal at the Purdue 1 yard line. The win probability was so high for Wisconsin that the difference between kicking a field goal and going for it were almost the same. But when we apply our "specialized knowledge" to the situation, going for it was clearly the correct decision. 

First, scoring a touchdown forces Purdue to score 3 times. Kicking a field goal keeps the number of times they have to score at 2. And second, consider the situation where Wisconsin fails on 4th and 1, and Purdue ends up driving 99 yards and scoring a touchdown. It's now a 3-point game. Compare that to the situation where Wisconsin kicks a field goal, then Purdue scores a touchdown, making it a 6 point game. Last week we saw that late in games, having a 3 point lead is actually better than a 4, 5, or 6 point lead. So Wisconsin was correct to go for it, and they ended up scoring a touchdown, effectively ending the game.

Iowa 40 - Northwestern 10

Don't look now, but Iowa is undefeated and doesn't have a team with fewer than 3 losses remaining on their schedule.

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

Iowa

5

2 4 1 0 0.53
Northwestern 8 2 7 1 0 1.01


After last week, Northwestern was leading the Big Ten in expected points lost due to their 4th down decision making. And things didn't change this week, as for the 3rd week in a row the Wildcats left over a point on the table. Their worst decision was kicking a field goal on 4th and goal from the 3 yard line. Anytime you're close to the end zone, your goal should be touchdown or bust. Because even if you end up turning the ball over on downs, you're still more likely to be the next team to score due to your opponent's terrible field position. Northwestern left 0.83 points on the field by deciding to kick a field goal. And at the time they were only down 16-7, so the game was still in doubt!

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team Time Left 4th Down Distance Yards to End Zone Calculator Decision Coach Decision Win Probability Go For It Win Probability Punt
Northwestern 13:06 7 44 Punt Punt 20.4% 21.1%

Northwestern was still down 16-10 when they found themselves in a 4th and 7 at the Iowa 44 yard line. The calculator agreed with Northwestern's decision to punt, but it was pretty close. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the punt sailed into the end zone for a touchback. Had we been able to predict the future and known the punt would be a touchback, the win probability for a punt would have dropped to 18%, and we would have suggested going for it. But we can't predict the future, so punting was still the correct decision. But it was after this punt that things unraveled for Northwestern. Iowa went on a 80 yard touchdown drive, Northwestern lost a fumble on their next offense play, Iowa scored another touchdown, and the rout was on.  

Nebraska 48 - Minnesota 25

Hey, look at that! Nebraska didn't lose a close 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

Nebraska

3 1 1 2 0 0.21
Minnesota 5 2 5 0 0 0.75

Want to avoid playing in a close game? Just have only three 4th downs in the entire first three quarters. Nebraska was too busy scoring touchdowns to be bothered with 4th down decisions. Although, the one they messed up was kicking a field goal on 4th and 3 from the Minnesota 14 yard line. It's close, but in the long run you'll score more points by going for it. And to help support my argument, Nebraska missed the field goal. Luckily for them, it did not matter.

Early in the game, Minnesota punted on 4th and 2 from their own 14 yard line. The calculator says to go for it, but the difference in expected points is only 0.19, and the consequences are disastrous if you fail. So punting isn't terrible in that situation. But later, Minnesota punted on 4th and 1 from their own 45 yard line. That decision cost them over half point, and as the final score indicates, they desperately needed points.

Nebraska led comfortably the entire 4th quarter, so we'll move on to the next game.

Ohio State 38 - Penn State 10

After a number of underwhelming performances, Ohio State finally had a convincing victory.

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

Penn State

8 2 6 1 1 1.21
Ohio State 5 0 5 0 0 0

Ohio State actually had one "disagreement" with the calculator. On 4th and 9 from the Penn State 34 yard line, they punted when the calculator would have kicked a 51 yard field goal. However, Buckeye punter Jack Willoughby has never attempted a 50+ yard field goal, and is 0-3 from 40-49 yards. Assuming a 51-yard field goal is out of his range, the correct decision was to punt. So I did not count that decision against Ohio State.

Penn State found itself in a similar situation. On a 4th and 8 from the Ohio State 31 yard line, they went for it when the calculator suggests kicking a 48 yard field goal. And Penn State kicker Joey Julius is 1 for 2 on 40-49 yard field goals this year, and James Franklin also had him attempt a 50 yard field goal too (the snap was fumbled, so he never kicked it). So it seems as if Julius has the range. As a big underdog against the #1 team in the country, Penn State should have implemented an aggressive strategy. So if the difference in expected points was pretty close, there was nothing wrong with going for it. But the difference in expected points was 0.65. With such a large difference Penn State should have kicked the field goal.

And in the game, the result ended up being worse than the decision. Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenburg was sacked on the play, and could clearly be seen limping the rest of the game. A hobbled quarterback probably hurt Penn State's chances of winning more than any 4th down decision could have.

But all was not lost for Penn State. Late in the 3rd quarter they were only down 11 points, but had a 4th and 1 from their own 45 yard line. They decided to punt when they should have gone for it. And this decision is even worse when you factor in the specialized knowledge Franklin had that the calculator doesn't. On all punts, the calculator assumes it travels a net of 40 yards (the Big Ten average for punts). But Penn State may in fact have the worse punters in the Big Ten. Earlier in the game, Penn State had punts of 28 yards, 32 yards, and 29 yards. And these weren't because of returns by Ohio State. They were going out of bounds. Punting on 4th and 1 is bad enough with an average punter, but it gets even worse when you're only gaining 30 yards of field position. And sure enough their punt on 4th and 1 traveled 30 yards and went out of bounds.  

In the 4th quarter, Penn State did correctly go for it on a 4th and 2 instead of kicking a field goal when they were down by two touchdowns. But they failed to convert, then Ohio State scored a touchdown, and the game got out of reach.

Rutgers 55 - Indiana 52

Wait, this game had 107 points....in regulation? Are we sure this was a Big Ten 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

Rutgers 7 1 5 0 2 0.79
Indiana 5 1 1 1 3 0.18


Before the season, I wrote about how Indiana should never punt. "Never" was a little tongue in cheek, but they have good reason to be the most aggressive Big Ten team when it comes to going for it on 4th down. And it looks like they listened this game, as they went for it 3 times and punted only once. Indiana went for it on:

  • 4th and 3 from the Rutgers 35 yard line (gained 33 yards and scored a touchdown the very next play)
  • 4th and 1 from the Rutgers 40 yard line (did not convert, but the next score was still an Indiana touchdown)
  • 4th and 3 from the Rutgers 37 yard line (did not convert, and the next score was a Rutgers touchdown)

The 4th down calculator agreed with all 3 of those decisions. The only decision it did not agree with was kicking a field goal on 4th and 6 from the Rutgers 9 yard line. But you'll see the difference in expected points is only 0.18. With a difference that small, kicking the field goal wasn't too bad of a decision.  

Rutgers on the other hand had a puzzling decision. On 4th and 8 from the Indiana 27 yard line, they went for it instead of kicking a field goal. Scarlet Knight kicker Kyle Federico is 9 for 16 (56%) from 40-49 yards. This isn't too different from the 63% that Big Ten kickers make a 44 yard field goal. And 4th and 8 is only successful 32% of the time. I get that Indiana has a bad defense, but the difference in expected points was 0.79. I don't think the Hoosier defense is that bad to make going for it the correct decision. But the gamble paid off of Rutgers, as they gained 15 yards on the play and scored a touchdown on the drive.

So through 3 quarters, Indiana only had 1 punt and was up 52-33. The strategy to never punt seemed to be doing well. Would it continue in the 4th quarter?

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team Time Left 4th Down Distance Yards to End Zone Calculator Decision Coach Decision Win Probability Go For It Win Probability Punt
Indiana 15:00 3 46 Punt Punt 96.5% 97.1%
Indiana 6:29 4 69 Punt Punt 45% 47.9%

Remember when I said saying Indiana should "never" punt was tongue in cheek? Can I take that back? There were only two 4th downs the entire 4th quarter. Both resulted in Indiana punts, and both went poorly for the Hoosiers. The first occurred at the start of the 4th quarter. Indiana was up 52-33 and punted on 4th and 3 from the Rutgers 46. The snap went over the punters head, and Rutgers scooped it up and scored a touchdown.  

Now the win probability has punting as the correct decision, but it's very close. And remember that these numbers are for your "average" Big Ten team. The Indiana defense is last in the Big Ten in both points allowed per game and yards allowed per game. And their offense is 3rd in points scored per game and 1st in yards gained per game. It's easy to say after we know that they blew a 19 point lead, but Indiana should have continued their aggressive strategy and gone for it here.

The second punt is a much harder decision. With the score tied at 52, Indiana had a 4th and 4 from their own 31 yard line. The win probability says Indiana increased their win probability by about 3% by punting. But this was a game that already had 100 points scored in it. It really seemed like whoever had the ball last would win. And that's exactly what happened, as Rutgers drove down the field and kicked the game winning field goal as time expired. 

So does that mean Indiana made the wrong decision to punt? Not necessarily. It's hard to quantify how much the bad defense/good offense would impact the numbers. But they definitely impacts it enough to warrant at least thinking about going for it here, and Indiana is probably the only Big Ten team you would say that for. It's too late to take this decision back, but Indiana's next three games are against undefeated Michigan State, undefeated Iowa, and 5-2 Michigan. I wasn't completely serious before, but I am now. Try an entire game without punting, Indiana. You have nothing to lose, and it just may result in pulling a huge upset. Go for it!

Michigan St 27 - Michigan 23

Maybe Michigan should try a game without punting too. 

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

Michigan St

5 2 3 0 2 1.42
Michigan 6 3 4 2 0 1.43


Through the first 3 quarters, the 4th down calculator disagreed with half of Michigan's 4th down decisions. The first one was very minor, as they kicked a field goal on 4th and 5 from the Michigan State 20 when the calculator would have gone for it. However, the difference in expected points is only 0.04. So really, either decision is fine. But Michigan left some points on the table in the 3rd quarter. They punted on a 4th and 1 from their own 33, giving up 0.56 points. Then they kicked a field goal on 4th and goal from the 3, giving up another 0.83 points. In total, it's almost a point and a half that Michigan left on the field.

A close football game in the 4th quarter can often be decided by the bonce of a ball rather than the talent of either team. A fumble that could bounce right back to the ball carrier or to the defense. A tipped pass that might go right to a defender or fall safely to the ground. That's why the goal of every coach should be to make sure the score isn't close enough to have those random bounces matter. Michigan had chances in the 3rd quarter to put the game away. But instead, they decided to play it safe. And we all know how that ended up. 

Meanwhile, the 4th down calculator is starting to notice a trend with Michigan State. They are consistently passing on 40+ yard field goals and going for it on 4th down instead. If the distance is short, the 4th down calculator fully supports this decision. But Michigan State keeps doing it on 4th and long. Against Michigan they passed on a 45 and 49 yard field goal and instead went for it on 4th and 8 both times. 4th and 8 is such a hard distance to convert, that the calculator prefers to kick a field goal. And Michigan State's field goal kicker is 12 for 17 (71%) for his career from 40-49. This is actually much higher than the value the calculator uses (61% and 56% respectively). Assuming there isn't anything wrong with their kicker, these decisions are very costly for the Spartans, as they cost them almost a point and a half. And the result didn't work out for them either. Michigan State failed to convert both 4th downs, and Michigan scored a touchdown both times on the very next drive.

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team Time Left 4th Down Distance Yards to End Zone Calculator Decision Coach Decision Win Probability Go For It Win Probability Kick
Michigan St 14:42 10 32 Go for it Go for it 16.9% 16.8% (FG)
Michigan 12:05 9 44 Punt Punt 84.3% 88.4% (Punt)
Michigan St 10:51 3 89 Go for it Punt 7.2% 6% (Punt)
Michigan 9:25 2 20 Go for it FG 93.8% 92.7% (FG)
Michigan St 6:41 10 40 Punt Punt 28% 29.6% (Punt)


This was a pretty wild 4th quarter. It started with Michigan State continuing their strategy of passing on 40+ yard field goals. Except this time because they were losing by 6 points, the win probability actually suggested going for it. But with the difference being one tenth of a percent, either decision really would have been fine. The Spartans went for it, but were unsuccessful, giving Michigan the ball back.

The Wolverines then had a 4th and 9 at the Michigan State 44. On the surface you might think that being aggressive and making it a two score game might be the correct decision. But 9 yards is just too far of a distance, and Michigan correctly punted.

This led to Michigan State having a 4th and 3 on their own 11 yard line. Yes, the field position is horrible, but this is something you have to consider about going for it. Losing by 6 in the 4th quarter, odds are you're going to have to go for it on 4th down at some point. So often you see coaches defer going for it until they're desperate, and often they end up going for it on a much longer distance than one they passed on earlier. And that's exactly what happened here. They decided to punt on 4th and 3, and ended up going for it on 4th and 19 at the end of the game. And yes, if they fail, Michigan has great field position. But they're going to get great field position anyway! In fact, Michigan returned the punt to the Michigan State 28 yard line, so the punt only got them 17 yards of field position.

Michigan used that great field position to kick a field goal on 4th and 2. The stats say to go for it, but I doubt you'll ever find a coach (or announcer) that won't "take the points" and make it a 2 score game. Of course, kickers miss 37 yard field goals 25% of the time and 9 and a half minutes is plenty of time for an opponent to score twice. Which is exactly why the stats prefer to go for it, leaving the possibility of a touchdown open and also burning more time off the clock.

Remember when I said 9 and a half minutes is plenty of time for a team to score twice? Well it took all of 29 seconds for Michigan State to respond, scoring a touchdown in 2 plays and making the deficit 2 points. After a correct Michigan punt, Michigan State found themselves in familiar territory. 4th and long in the "gray zone" (what I like to call the area between the opponents 25 and 49 yard line). But they actually punted, a decision that is supported by the 4th down calculator.

The rest of the game was pretty boring, at least from a 4th down perspective. Michigan correctly punted on a 4th and 6, and Michigan State correctly went for it on a 4th and 19 (I bet a 4th and 3 on your own 11 yard line doesn't seem so bad now, does it?). Then, yeah, this happened.

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 25 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.

Team Summary

Team Number of Disagreements Total Expected Points Lost
Northwestern 7 4.23
Minnesota 6 2.82
Indiana 4 2.74
Michigan 5 2.59
Michigan St 5 2.04
Penn St 3 2.01
Iowa 3 1.80
Nebraska 4 1.59
Illinois 3 1.19
Wisconsin 3 1.18
Rutgers 2 1.09
Ohio St 3 0.92
Purdue 1 0.24
Maryland 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

11 0.64 3 4.67

*

*

25-49

0

0

4 2.75 1 -7

1-24

*

* 6 2.83 2 3

 

The Gray Zone (4th downs 25-49 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

4 2.75 1 -7

2-5

10 1.7 9 -0.89 2 -2

6-9

13 1.15 6 -3 4 2.5

10+

14 0.14 1 7 6 1.5

 

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