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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 6

4th and 1. It's a situation where the Big Ten 4th down calculator will never say to kick (unless, of course, it's the end of the game and a field goal will tie or take the lead). But what would it take to have the statistics suggest a punt? The key here is how far the punt travels. Last year the average Big Ten punt traveled about 40 yards. Using this value, in your own territory you'll score about 0.56 more points by going for it over kicking. So how far would the punt have to travel for the calculator to suggest punting?

48 yards.

The best punter in the NFL this year nets only 46 yards per punt. So good luck ever finding a college punter who can average 48 yards a punt. And keep in mind this all assumes that if you successfully convert the 4th and 1, you gain only one yard. But quite often, you'll gain more yards, putting yourself in an even better scoring position than the calculator takes into account. In fact, Ohio State had a 4th and 1 at their own 35 yard line earlier this year, and they scored a 65 yard touchdown on the play.

If all that wasn't enough, there is more bad news for the punting enthusiasts. It appears that my value of 40 yards for a punt didn't include any return yardage. Luckily, this year ESPN has statistics for both how far the punt traveled and the net yardage of the punt. The latter value is what we want to use for the 4th down calculator, since it best represents where the other team will start their drive. And this year, only two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Iowa) have a net punt yardage that is 40 yards or more. The average value in the Big Ten is 37 yards. So moving forward, I'm going to use this value for net punt yardage instead of 40. 

This change suggests you're giving up even more points by punting on 4th and 1 (0.79 points) and 4th and 2 (0.41 points). It also changes the calculator's decision on 4th and 3 from punting to going for it! However, the difference in expected points is 0.068, which is so close to 0 that, really, either decision on 4th and 3 is fine. And I bet you'll never guess which decision coaches will make 99% of the time!

If you're new to this and want to quick recap on what exactly the 4th down calculator is, please see the beginning of last week's post for details. Now let's get on to the games!

Penn State 39 - Illinois 0

Penn State completely dominated Illinois 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

Illinois

10 0 10 0 0 0
Penn State 6 3 5 1 0 1


Illinois had 10 punts, including 4 in Penn State territory. And yet the distance was so long that the calculator didn't disagree with a single one of them. The best 4th down distance Illinois had was 4th and 9, and four of their 4th downs required them to get more than 15 yards! As I said, complete dominance by Penn State in this game.

Penn State had three incorrect 4th down decisions. None of them was terrible, but none the less they added up to a whole point that Penn State left on the board. Although, it's not like they needed it. Early on, Penn State punted on a 4th and 2 from their own 40 when the model says you should go for it. They later punted on 4th and 4 from their own 43 yard line. Again, the model says they should have gone for it, but the difference in expected points is only 0.07 points and at the time Penn State was up 22-0 in the 3rd quarter. With the expected points that close and your team already holding a large lead, there really isn't any issue with a punt there.

Penn State's worst 4th down decision came on their next drive. With a 4th and 4 at the Illinois 11 yard line, they kicked a field goal instead of going for it. Sure, teams convert on 4th and 4 less than half of the time (46%), but even if they failed Illinois would start the ball at their own 11 yard line. With that kind of field position, Penn State would still likely be the next team to score. The decision cost the Penn State just over half a point. It didn't matter this game, but with their remaining opponents being Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions will most likely need all the points they can get.

Wisconsin 48 - Rutgers 10

More domination—by the Badgers over the Scarlet Knights.

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

8 1 6 1 1 0.52
Wisconsin 5 1 3 1 1 0.19

With the game only 10-0 late in the 1st quarter, Rutgers had a 4th and goal at the Wisconsin 3 yard line. They kicked a field goal when the calculator says on average you'll score half a point more by going for it. The decision was bad to begin with, but it's even worse when you consider the game situation. Rutgers was a 21-point underdog, so they should have been making aggressive 4th down decisions in an attempt to pull an upset. Even if the statistics slightly favored a field goal, Rutgers should have considered going for it. But kicking a field goal when going for it was the optimal choice? Well, that's not how you pull an upset. Opportunity missed.  

However, Rutgers did play aggressively later in the game. On a 4th and 5 at the Wisconsin 29 yard line, they decided to go for it. The calculator suggests kicking a field goal, but the difference in expected points between kicking and going for it is only 0.27 points, and at the time Rutgers was down 21 points. Considering what I said previously about Rutgers having to make aggressive 4th down decisions, I think going for it was absolutely the correct decision. So although technically it's a disagreement with the 4th down calculator, I'm not going to count it against Rutgers.

Wisconsin's disagreement with the calculator was an interesting one. Earlier in the game, they had a 4th and 14 at the Rutgers 31 yard line. They correctly decided to kick a 49 yard field goal and they made it. Later in the game, they had a 4th and 7 at the Rutgers 31 yard line. Instead of kicking another field goal from the same distance, they decided to go for it. The calculator suggests kicking the field goal (especially since we already know their kicker has that kind of range), but you'll see that the difference in expected points is only 0.19. So the decision to go for it isn't a bad one. Keep in mind the calculator assumes you'll pick up exactly 7 yards if you convert, but in reality you'll often gain even more yards, which makes the decision to go for it even stronger. That's exactly what happened here, as Wisconsin threw a 31-yard touchdown pass on the play, taking a 17-3 lead and never looking back. 

Iowa 31 - Maryland 15

Iowa stays undefeated, and their last 4 games come against teams with a combined 3 wins in the Big Ten. A trip to the Big Ten championship game looks likely for the Hawkeyes.

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

6 0 5 0 1 0
Iowa 6 0 4 1 1 0

Lots of good 4th down decision-making in this game. Iowa correctly went for it on a 4th and 5 at the Maryland 30 yard line. Maryland went for it an converted on a 4th and 1. And later on that same drive Maryland had 4th and 6 at the Iowa 35. The calculator suggests kicking a field goal, but the expected points for going for it are just slightly less than kicking a field goal. And at the time, Maryland was down 21-0, so they needed points, making going for it the correct decision. And that's exactly what the Terrapins intended to do.

Key word, intended.

Maryland wasn't able to get the play off in time, and got a 5 yard delay-of-game penalty. With a 4th and 11 at the Iowa 40, they correctly punted. But their intended aggressiveness didn't go unrewarded, as the next score in the game was a Maryland touchdown, which they followed up with a surprise onside kick! The onside kick was not successful, but as heavy underdogs Maryland was making the correct decision to play aggressively and take some chances. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for them, as Iowa took control in the 4th quarter and went on to a double-digit victory.

Purdue 55 - Nebraska 45

Are we sure this isn't a basketball score?   

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

4 1 3 1 0 0.79
Purdue 5 1 4 0 1 0.07

In the second quarter, Nebraska punted on a 4th and 1. Sure, it was at their own 29 yard line, but teams successfully convert on 4th and 1 so often that it's well worth the risk of turning the ball over in your own territory. The model suggests Nebraska lost 0.79 points by punting. Luckily for the Cornhuskers, the punt traveled 59 yards, Purdue went 3 and out on their next possession, and neither team scored again until after halftime. Unluckily for the Cornhuskers, their defense gave up 55 points and they badly could have used points on that possession.

Purdue punted on a 4th and 3 on their own 19 yard line. Because the calculator now uses a net yardage of 37 yards per punt instead of 40, it's always going to suggest going for it—even when you're at your own 19 yard line. However, you'll see that the difference is almost 0, so really, either decision is fine. And in this particular case, just under 2 minutes remained until halftime. Even if Purdue converted, they still had a long way to go to score in less than 2 minutes. And if they turned the ball over, Nebraska would have great field position where the time remaining wouldn't matter. So punting was definitely the correct call, and I won't include the decision in the team summary. 

Speaking of correct calls, Purdue went for a 4th and 1 at the Nebraska 10 yard line. This should always be an easy decision: you should go for it every time. But you'll often year announcers say that coaches should "take the points" and kick the field goal. Well, making that decision at your opponent's 10 yard line would cost you 1.56 points. Purdue made the correct call and went for it over kicking. They converted, and scored a touchdown on the very next play. 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 Punt
Purdue
(Up by 11)
6:19 1 37 Go for it Go for it 98.4% 98.3%

There's just one 4th down decision in the 4th quarter worth mentioning. Purdue went for it on a 4th and 1 to try to put the game away. The calculator suggested going for it, but Purdue's win probability was so high that either decision would have been fine. But what if things were a little different? Let's say that everything about this situation were the same, except the scored was tied. In that case, Purdue would have a win probability of 58.7% by going for it, and 47.1% by punting. That just shows how much the margin can affect the win probabilities. 

In the actual game, Purdue threw an incomplete pass on 4th and 1, but their aggressiveness wouldn't go unrewarded. Nebraska's very next play was an interception that Purdue returned to the 6 yard line. And the next play put Purdue in the end zone, effectively ending the game.

Michigan 29 - Minnesota 26

Oh man, do we have some things to talk about here.

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 5 1 4 0 1 0.41
Minnesota 6 2 4 2 0 0.58

With the game still scoreless in the first quarter, Minnesota found themselves with a 4th and goal at the 5 yard line. This is a place where you'll almost always see coaches kick a field goal, but the statistics actually slightly favor going for it. However, the difference is only 0.17 points, so coaches should consider other factors in their decision making. In this game Minnesota was a 2 touchdown underdog, so they should have been aggressive in their 4th down decision making and went for it. But instead they followed the norm and kicked the field goal.

Michigan didn't have a single 4th down until there was less than 6 minutes left in the 2nd quarter. But that 4th down was their one disagreement, as they punted on 4th and 2 near midfield when the calculator suggests going for it. And the result didn't work out well for the Wolverines, as after the punt it took Minnesota all of 3 plays to scored a touchdown.

With a minute left in the first half, Michigan had a 4th and 6 at the Minnesota 37 yard line. The calculator suggests a field goal, but the Michigan kicker has never attempted a field goal of 50 yards or more, so it's safe to assume a 54 yard field goal is not in his range. With the field goal ruled out, the correct decision is to go for it, and that's exactly what Michigan did. But the correct decision still ended in a bad result for Michigan, as they lost a fumble on the play and Minnesota was able to kick a field goal right before halftime.

Minnesota's other disagreement came on a 4th and 2 near midfield. Minnesota decided to punt when they should have gone for it, a decision that cost the Gophers 0.41 points. Again, being a two touchdown underdog, they should have been more aggressive.

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
Minnesota
(Up by 2)
11:43 5 29 Go for it FG 55% 53.5% (FG)
Michigan
(Down by 5)
10:04 4 69 Go for it Punt 25.8% 24.9% (Punt)
Minnesota
(Up by 5)
8:36 19 89 Punt Punt 39.8% 52% (Punt)
Minnesota
(Down by 3)
0:02 1 1 Go for it Go for it 58.6% 52.5% (FG)

Minnesota missed another chance to be aggressive when they kicked a 47 yard field goal on 4th and 5. A field goal is far from a sure thing here, as Big Ten kickers make a 47 yard field goal about 60% of the time. And a field goal still leaves Michigan the opportunity to take the lead with a touchdown. Going for it leaves the possibility of Minnesota scoring a touchdown, which would force Michigan to score twice. And at the very least a successful conversion would take more time off the clock and set up an easier field goal attempt.

After Minnesota made their field goal attempt, Michigan had a 4th and 4 at their own 31 with 10 minutes left. The calculator actually suggests Michigan should have gone for it here. If you're losing in the 4th quarter, odds are you're going to have to go for it on 4th down at some point. You so often see coaches punt on 4th and short, only to have to go for it on 4th and long later in the game. Fourth and 4 is pretty manageable, so under normal circumstances Michigan should have gone for it. But these weren't normal circumstances.

Remember, the calculator's recommendations aren't meant to be written in stone. You should also consider the game situation before making a decision. At the time, Michigan had put in their backup quarterback because of an injury to their starter, and the backup quarterback had yet to complete a pass. Putting the entire game on his shoulders right here was probably a little too much to ask. Plus, the strength of this Michigan team is their defense. It's hard to quantify how much those factors affect the probabilities, but I think it's enough to make punting the correct decision here. The Michigan defense then rose to the occasion, forcing Minnesota into a 4th and 19, where a punt was absolutely the correct decision.

Remember when I said that often you'll see coaches punt on 4th and short only to have to go for it on 4th and long later? Well, this was not one of those times. Michigan was able to score the go-ahead touchdown without having to go for it on a single 4th down. Minnesota got the ball back and drove down the field. They had a 4th and 5 with 1:35 left where going for it was such an easy decision I didn't even include it in the table. Then, after a big pass play and some terrible clock management, Minnesota had a 2nd and goal at the 1 yard line with two seconds left in the game. This sets up quite the epic decision, as Minnesota decided to go for the win instead of kicking the game tying field goal. 

With sports analysis, too often we use the result to decide whether a decision was correct or not. Minnesota was stopped short of the end zone, and immediately everybody questioned whether they should have kicked the field goal instead. But the coach couldn't tell the future. So to decide whether his decision was correct or not, we should only use the information that was available to him at the time. And that means we have to ignore the result. 

With two seconds left, you're only getting off one play, so we can treat this like a 4th and goal at the 1. Big Ten teams convert 4th and goal at the 1 58.6% of the time, so that is where the win probability for going for it comes from. To calculate the win probability of overtime, I multiplied 0.937 * 0.56. The 0.937 is the probability that Minnesota makes the field goal. It's pretty high, but remember that kicks are never automatic. Even the most routine kick can end in disaster, as the Michigan/Michigan State game showed us. The 0.56 is Minnesota's probability of winning in overtime, as I have previously found that home field advantage still exists in college football overtimes.

One thing that this doesn't consider is the fact that Michigan was a heavy favorite going into this game. Does the favorite win more often in college football overtimes, or is it closer to 50/50 (after accounting for home field advantage)? I don't know the answer, and couldn't find anything about it online. But if favorites are more likely to win, then all this would do is lower the win probability for kicking a field goal. And since it's already lower than the probability of going for it, we can safely say that Minnesota made the correct decision to go for the win at the end of the game.

It's just too bad the result didn't work out for them.

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 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 8 5.78
Minnesota 8 3.4
Indiana 5 3.3
Illinois 7 3.21
Rutgers 6 3.21
Penn State 7 3.2
Michigan 6 3
Nebraska 6 2.57
Michigan State 5 2.18
Iowa 3 1.8
Wisconsin 4 1.37
Ohio State 3 0.92
Purdue 1 0.24
Maryland 1 0.04

Since Northwestern was on a bye last week, we'll take a break from being disappointed in Pat Fitzgerald and instead talk about the teams at the bottom of this list. At first glance, you might think Maryland has been making great 4th down decisions. But the real reason they're so low is that they're always in 4th and long. Of the 25 4th downs the calculator has tracked for Maryland, 13 of them have been 4th and 10 yards or longer. And 23 of them have been 4th and 5 yards or longer. Correctly deciding to punt on 4th and long really isn't that impressive. So let's focus on the team that should be getting credit.

Purdue.

The Boilermakers have gone for it on 4th down 26 times this season—that's the most in the college football. So it's no surprise that their decisions have agreed with the calculator for the most part. In fact, the one disagreement Purdue had was going for it when the calculator suggested kicking a field goal. But even in that case, they were heavy underdogs against Michigan State, so being aggressive was probably the correct decision.

Purdue has had four different 4th and 1's this season (in the first 3 quarters), and have correctly gone for it every time. And in their upset win over Nebraska this last week, they went for it on 4th and 1 three different times (with two of them coming in the 4th quarter). Will the aggressive play calling result in another upset win this season? Possibly on November 21st, against what could be an undefeated Iowa team? The 4th down calculator is anxious to find out!

In the meantime, great 4th down decision making Boilermakers. Keep it up! 

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

2

7

0

0

*

*

50-74

15 -0.67 3 4.67

*

*

25-49

0

0

6 1.83 1 -7

1-24

*

* 8 2.13 3 3


Not much change here from last week. Teams are still waiting until they cross midfield to be aggressive on 4th and 1. Next week we have a full slate of 7 Big Ten conference games, so I hope we can get some more 4th and 1's and start increasing these sample sizes!

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

6 1.83 1 -7

2-5

16 0.63 11 -0.36 3 -0.33

6-9

15 1 9 -0.78 6 3.33

10+

25 -0.96 1 7 10 2.1

 

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