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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 9

Big Ten LogoThis past weekend in the Big Ten showed how being conservative on 4th down decisions can cost you a game. Ohio State punted on 4th and 1 three different times, while Penn State and Illinois both kicked field goals in the 4th quarter when they needed a touchdown to tie or take the lead. All three teams lost. Perhaps taking some advice from the 4th down calculator would have greatly benefited them!

If you're new to this, I've used Minitab Statistical Software to create a model to determine the correct 4th down decision. And throughout the 2015 college football season, I've used that model to track every 4th down decision in Big Ten Conference games. However, the decision the calculator recommends 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 data-informed 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.

Indiana 47 - Maryland 28

Indiana finally gets a win after losing six in a row.

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

Indiana

6 2 2 4 0 1.13
Maryland 9 5 6 0 3 1.49

This game featured 7 disagreements with the 4th down calculator. Seven! Indiana opened things off on their opening drive by kicking a field goal on 4th and goal from the 4. The difference in expected points between kicking and going for it is only 0.13, so on the surface this decision isn't too bad. But Indiana has a great offense and a horrible defense. They should have gone for it here. And to prove the terrible defense part, Maryland went on to score three straight touchdowns and take a 21-3 lead with 5 minutes left in the 1st quarter.

But then the Terps starting making poor 4th down decisions of their own.

Maryland's first punt came on a 4th and 3 near midfield. The calculator will always say to go for it on 4th and 3 regardless of field position, but in your own territory the difference in expected points is only 0.07. So in general, the decision to punt (especially deep in their own territory) is fine. But in this game, Maryland has to keep in mind they're playing Indiana. The Hoosier defense is so bad, and their offense is so good, that you should be more aggressive than usual on 4th downs. And since they were close to midfield, Maryland should have definitely gone for it here. 

After the punt, Indiana scored a touchdown recovered a surprise onside kick, then scored another touchdown. What a great call! Seriously, Indiana should try one surprise onside kick every single game. The decision to do so here was superb. When Maryland finally got the ball back, they punted again on 4th and 2. This time they were deep in their own territory...but have I mentioned that this Indiana defense is bad? On the day Maryland running back Brandon Ross averaged 13.2 yards per carry. That's right, thirteen-point-two! So why are you punting on 4th and 2, no matter what the field position is?

Indiana followed up Maryland's poor decision on 4th and 2 with a terrible one of their own. They had 4th and goal at the 2 yard line and kicked a field goal. This cost Indiana a full point. I've been saying this all year: even if you fail on 4th down near the end zone, the other team still has to start close to their goal line! Here's a case where failing is actually succeeding! Stop kicking on 4th and goal inside the 5!

Maryland's next 4th down decision is absolutely puzzling. On a 4th and 9 from their own 25, they faked a punt. It failed miserably and led to a Indiana field goal. But the fake punt isn't the real problem: it's the earlier punts on 4th and 2 and 4th and 3. You're going to play it safe there, but then 4th and 9 is where you decide to get aggressive? I don't get it.

Maryland's last disagreement with the calculator came on another punt on 4th and 2. Again, they were deep in their own territory, but again this is Indiana. And sure, if you fail they get great field position, but they're going to get good field position anyway! Nonetheless, boom went the punt, and 4 plays later Indiana was in the end zone, taking a commanding lead they would never relinquish. The next time Maryland had a 4th down distance under 5 yards, less than 7 minutes remained in the game and they were down by 19 points. If only had you had gone for some of those 4th downs earlier, Maryland. If only...

Iowa 40 - Purdue 20

And then there was only one undefeated Big Team team.

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 7 2 4 2 1 0.86
Iowa 3 1 3 0 0 0.07

Purdue is leading the country on 4th down attempts, and on Saturday they were a 3 touchdown underdog playing an undefeated team...on the road. On the first drive of the game they punted on 4th and 1. Not only did Iowa score a touchdown on the next possession anyway, the Hawkeyes actually scored touchdowns on their first 3 possessions! But keep punting on 4th and 1, Purdue. That's the way you'll pull the upset.

Speaking of ways to not pull the upset, Purdue then punted on 4th and 3 from midfield. The difference in expected points is only 0.07, so on the surface this wasn't a terrible decision. But Purdue was already down 20-0 and Iowa had done nothing but score touchdowns on every offensive possession so far. How does punting make any sense here?

Luckily for Purdue, they got the ball back and scored a touchdown. Oh, and on that drive they went for it and succeeded on 4th and 1! Purdue actually cut the lead to 7 points in the 3rd quarter, but two consecutive Iowa touchdowns put the game out of reach. Maybe if Purdue had tried going for it earlier, they could have had a chance at pulling the upset.

Northwestern 13 - Wisconsin 7

It's time to get the answer to the weekly question, "Did Northwestern kick on 4th and 1 again this week?"

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

8 1 5 2 1 0.07
Wisconsin 5 0 5 0 0 0

Wait, what is this? Northwestern had only one disagreement with the calculator, and the difference in expected points was basically 0 anyway? And they went for it on a 4th and 1?

Hold on, I need to sit down for a minute...

Okay, I'm good now. The lack of disagreements really illustrates how wells these defenses played. Wisconsin never really had a chance to be aggressive on 4th down in the first 3 quarters. In fact, at one point they had a 4th and 33. The model used for 4th down conversion percentages gave the Badgers a 0.0005% chance of converting that. Probably a good idea to punt.

I mentioned that Northwestern actually went for a 4th and 1. Of course, they didn't get it and Wisconsin scored their only touchdown of the game 5 plays later. I'm afraid this will cause Pat Fitzgerald to never attempt to convert a 4th down ever again. The Northwestern disagreement came on a punt on 4th and 3 from their own 41. But honestly, the strength of this Northwestern team is their defense, and the difference in expected value is close to 0. So I actually think punting was the correct call here. And that brings us to 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 Kick
Northwestern
(Up by 3)
14:50 3 23 Go for it FG 60.9% 57.1% (FG)
Wisconsin
(Down by 3)
13:47 8 75 Punt Punt 37.4% 41.5% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Up by 3)
12:29 4 72 Punt Punt 42.4% 43.1% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Up by 3)
9:10 7 34 Tie Punt 57.2% 57.2% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Up by 3)
4:00 20 20 FG FG 80.3% 67.8% (FG)
Wisconsin
(Down by 6)
2:30 14 69 Go for it Punt 4.2% 2.2% (Punt)

I knew Northwestern's good 4th down decision making couldn't last. They kicked a 40 yard field goal at the start of the 4th quarter when they should have went for it on 4th and 3. And this decision is even worse when you consider that Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell has struggled on kicks from 40-49 yards, going 5 for 13 on them (well below the 70% value the calculator used). And sure enough, the field goal was no good.

After a few punts and a Wisconsin fumble, Northwestern had a 4th and 7 at the Wisconsin 34. The calculator actually gave the exact same win probabilities for punting and going for it. Personally, I would have gone for it just on the principle of not punting from the 34 yard line, but the decision to punt wasn't terrible.

After a Wisconsin interception, things got really interesting from a 4th down decision making perspective. Northwestern had a 4th and goal from the 20 yard line while up 3 points. Common sense says this isn't even a decision—you kick the field goal. The calculator and Pat Fitzgerald agree, as the Wildcats kicked and made the field goal. But common sense and the 4th down calculator don't know football's dirty little secret.

At the end of the game, it's better to be up by 3 points than 6.

A few weeks ago, I compared teams that were up 3 points and 4 - 6 points with one to five minutes remaining in the game. Teams that were up by 3 won about 82% of the time, and teams that were up 4-6 won only 76% of the time. So the data suggest Northwestern actually would have been better off by missing the field goal. The reason for this is that when coaches are only down by 3 points, their play calling gets very conservative once they get in field goal range. But if they need a touchdown, they stay aggressive. A perfect example happened in this game. With 30 seconds left, Wisconsin was out of timeouts and had a 1st and 10 at the Northwestern 23. Down by 3, they probably call a safe pass or a run to set up the field goal. But since they were down by 6, they threw downfield and completed a pass at the 1 yard line. 

It worked out for Northwestern, as they were able to make a goal line stand and win the game. But in general you can't feel good about your chances when up 6 if the other team has the ball at the 1 yard line. And that's why the stats say, if you're in field goal range up by 3 towards the end of the game, your thought process should be touchdown or bust.

Minnesota 32 - Illinois 23

Illinois may have just "kicked" their chance at a bowl game goodbye.

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

4 2 2 2 0 0.19
Minnesota 4 0 3 1 0 0

Both teams did pretty well from a 4th down perspective in the first 3 quarters. Illinois had two disagreements with the model, but both of those were pretty minor. One was a field goal on 4th and goal from the 4, and the other was a 4th and 3 at midfield. Illinois was only a small underdog in this game, so no real need to play a super aggressive strategy. Since there isn't much to talk about here, we'll just jump right to 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 Kick
Illinois
(Down by 4)
14:13 8 35 Go for it Go for it 26.7% 25.6% (Punt)
Minnesota
(Up by 4)
13:27 5 65 Punt Punt 59.3% 62.5% (Punt)
Illinois
(Down by 4)
6:56 3 18 Go for it FG 36% 28.4% (FG)
Minnesota
(Up by 1)
4:46 5 57 Punt Punt 49.5%% 53.3% (Punt)
Illinois
(Down by 1)
3:10 19 68 Punt Punt 13.3% 22.5% (Punt)

Things started off so well for Illinois. They correctly went for it on a 4th and 8 at the Minnesota 35. They threw an interception on the play, but they got the ball back after a Gopher punt. And then things went south. On a 4th and 3 from the Minnesota 18, they kicked a field goal. After the made field goal, Illinois went from losing to...oh, wait, they were still losing. The decision to kick was a terrible one, lowering their win probability by 8%! It was only 3 yards! When you're losing late in the 4th quarter, odds are you're going to have to go for it on 4th down at some point. So with a 4th and short, Illinois should have gone for it.

Minnesota ended up punting and Illinois got the ball back. But then they found themselves in a 4th and 19! Nineteen! Oh man, Bill Cubit, I bet you wish you could make that 4th and 3 decision over again. With such a long distance, Illinois had to punt. But Minnesota scored a touchdown in 2 plays and made the 2 point conversion to go up by 9, effectively ending the game. Illinois will now have to beat 9-2 Northwestern next week to become bowl-eligible. Otherwise, they'll have a long off-season thinking about that field goal.

Michigan 28 - Penn State 16

Surely we couldn't have two coaches kick a field goal when they needed a touchdown on the same day, could we?

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 3 5 0 0 1.20
Penn State 7 0 6 1 0 0

For the most part, defenses dominated in this game, as 11 of the 12 4th down decisions were punts. Two of Michigan's "disagreements" were on a 4th and 2 and 4th and 3 deep in their own territory. Considering the strength of both of these teams are their defenses, I think Michigan was correct to go against the calculator's recommendation and punt (especially on the 4th and 3).

Michigan's third disagreement was a terrible one in theory, but ended up with a great result. With a 4th and 2 at the Penn State 43 yard line, they punted. The statistics say this cost the Wolverines 0.81 points. But the punt ended up costing the Nittany Lions, as they fumbled it and Michigan recovered inside their own 10 to set up a touchdown. This gave Michigan an 11 point lead as we entered the 4th quarter. Sometimes bad decisions can still end up with great results.

Michigan held the 11 point lead to late in the 3rd quarter, when Penn State found itself with a 4th and 9 in Michigan territory. But since there were only 10 seconds left in the quarter, I included this decision with the 4th quarter decisions. So let's move on to there.

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
Penn State
(Down by 11)
15:10 9 41 Go for it Go for it 7.8% 7.6% (Punt)
Penn State
(Down by 11)
14:02 6 6 Go for it FG 12.2% 10.5% (FG)
Michigan
(Up by 8)
12:29 15 79 Punt Punt 74.4% 81.7% (Punt)
Penn State
(Down by 8)
8:05 1 1 Go for it FG 25.5% 14.6% (FG)

Just like Illinois, things started so well for Penn State. They correctly went for it on a 4th and 9 in Michigan territory, and they converted. But then on 4th and goal from the 6, Nittany Lion coach James Franklin kicked a field goal when the stats would recommend to go for it. Part of the reason is that by kicking, you might still need 2 possessions to score. If you get a touchdown, then you know that you only need one more possession. And lest you think no coach would ever do what the stats suggest, know that it's not without precedent. In 2012, then-Penn State coach Bill O'Brien went for it on 4th and 4 from the 6 in almost the exact same position. They were down 11 points to Northwestern with just under 10 minutes left in the game. The result for O'Brien was a touchdown and after the 2 point conversion he knew that they could tie with a field goal or take the lead with a touchdown. By kicking a field goal, Franklin still didn't know how many more times he needed to score.

After a Michigan punt, Franklin then made the worst decision the Big Ten 4th down calculator has seen this year. On 4th and goal from the 1, he kicked a field goal. Now, instead of needing a touchdown...oh, wait, Penn State still needed a touchdown. This dropped Penn State's win probability by a staggering 11%! I will note that although the play-by-play data says the ball was at the 1, it actually looked closer to the 2 yard line. But even if we put the ball at the 2 yard line, the difference in win probability is still 9%! You need a touchdown at some point; why not try to score one when you're just a yard or two away? It's mind boggling.

After the game Franklin said they kicked the field goal because he didn't think they could score a touchdown. Then why did he go for it on 4th and 9? After all, if you don't think you can get a yard or two on 4th down, what makes you think you could get 9? Teams convert 4th and 9 only 30% of the time. They convert 4th and goal from the one yard line 59% of the time (and 50% of the time from the two yard line). And even if you fail, Michigan is starting at their own 1 yard line! You're likely to get the ball back in great field position anyway.

After the field goal, Michigan took all of 6 plays to score a touchdown and take a 2 possession lead. Penn State ended up having to go for it on 4th and 10 from their own 25 yard line. Kinda makes you wish you had an easier 4th down to convert, doesn't it? Like, maybe, 4th and 1 at the goal line?

And remember that Bill O'Brien game? He actually passed up a 35 yard field goal that could have tied the game with 4 minutes left to go for it on a 4th and 2. Penn State converted the 4th down, scored a touchdown, and went on to win the game. Two different strategies, two different outcomes. Going for it won't always work like it did for O'Brien, but there is a reason it pays to be aggressive on 4th down.

Michigan St 17 - Ohio St 14

Hey. remember what I just said about it paying to be aggressive on 4th down? Well, wait until you get a load of this.

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 4 1 0 0.93
Ohio St 8 4 7 0 1 1.99

All season long, Ohio State has been super aggressive on 4th and 1, twice going for it deep in their own territory (and scoring a touchdown on both drives). But last week things got weird. They punted on 4th and 1 three different times! Ohio State still won the game, but they left a lot of expected points on the field. Had they played a more talented opponent, that decision making could have cost them their undefeated season.

Well, a week later, it did.

Ohio State had 4th and 1 four different times in this game, and they punted on three of them. And one of them was in Michigan State territory! To add insult to injury, Ohio State also punted on a 4th and 2. Add it all up, and it cost the Buckeyes about two expected points lost. Points they badly needed in a game that they lost by a field goal. The one time Ohio State made the correct decision was 4th and goal at the 1. But they even screwed that up by having to take a time out before the play. Why do these coaches take so much time to make these decisions? Ohio State had 3rd and goal at the 1. The coach should know ahead of time what they plan on doing if they don't score on 3rd down. Why are you wasting a time out? All you have to do is think one play ahead!

Ohio State's third punt on 4th and 1 came with 32 seconds left in the first half, so I didn't count any expected points lost against them for this decision. However, a conversion would have give them the ball at midfield with enough time left to move into field goal position. It would have been a low-risk opportunity to get some more points before halftime. And in a tight defensive game like this, you can't waste opportunities.

Michigan State punted on 4th and 2 from midfield. Normally I would say this is bad, but since the strength of the Spartans is their defense and their starting quarterback was out, this decision was probably the correct one. Although they later punted on 4th and 3 from the Ohio State 41 yard line. Even with an inexperienced quarterback, the upside of converting here is so high compared to the risk of failing that Michigan State should have gone for it. And as you'll soon see, it's not like a 4th and 3 is impossible. Even with a backup quarterback.

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
(Down by 7)
14:45 3 30 Go for it Go for it 13.6% 10.5% (FG)
Ohio St
(Tie Score)
8:43 4 52 Punt Punt 62.7% 65.6% (Punt)
Michigan St
(Tie Score)
5:49 3 58 Go for it Punt 36.3% 33.4% (Punt)
Ohio St
(Tie Score
4:07 6 89 Punt Punt 32.7% 35.5% (Punt)

We saw Illinois and Penn State pass up opportunities to score game tying/lead changing touchdowns to instead kick field goals and continue to trail. Michigan State decided to do things a little differently. They passed up a potential 47 yard field goal and went for it. The Spartans converted and ended up scoring a touchdown on the possession. Illinois and Penn State failed to pull upsets, while Michigan State now controls their own destiny to the Big Ten Championship game. Just saying.

After an Ohio State punt, the Spartans had a 4th and 3 fro their own 42. The statistics say to go for it, but I think this is a case where the situational knowledge makes punting the correct decision. Again, without their starting quarterback and with their defense being the strength of the time, I agree with Michigan State's decision to go against the calculator's advice and punt. Now, had they been losing, things might be different. But in a tie game, go see if your defense can make a play. And that's exactly what happened. The defense got a stop and gave the offense the ball with great field position, and Michigan State used the short field to set up a game-winning field goal. 

And Ohio State can only wonder what might have happened if they built a larger lead by going for it on those 4th and 1s.

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 1-2 yards, and decisions made between midfield and the opponent’s 25 yard line. I call this area the “Gray Zone”. 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 11 7.61
Ohio State 11 5.76
Michigan 11 5.25
Rutgers 9 4.98
Indiana 8 4.5
Illinois 13 4.3
Minnesota 9 3.81
Penn State 8 3.61
Iowa 7 3.49
Nebraska 7 3.36
Michigan St 9 3.2
Purdue 5 2.41
Wisconsin 5 2.16
Maryland 7 1.67

In two weeks, Ohio State has moved from 12th place to 2nd in most expected points lost in the Big Ten. I guess that's what happens when you punt on 4th and 1 six different times! One more week like that and they might catch Northwestern. But more important, they might lose a game to their arch rival because of it.

4th and 1...and also 4th and 2!

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

13

-3.85 1 7

*

*

50-74

37 -0.216 6 4

*

*

25-49

5 0 16 1.5 1 -7

1-24

*

* 13 3.2 5 3

When a team has a 4th and short inside the red zone, you'll hear a lot of announcers say that you have to "take the points." They mean that you should kick the field goal to get the certain points (because field goals are never missed) instead of going for it when you might get stopped and score nothing. But the statistics say that on 4th and 1 or 2, you should never kick a field goal. In the long run you'll score more points by going for it. Here, we're finally seeing that play out in real life. The 13 teams that have gone for it on 4th and short inside the 25 have scored an average of 3.2 points. This is higher than the 3 "automatic" points you'll get for a field goal (although we see that the 5 teams that have kicked have all made the field goal), so the events on the field are providing good support for the statistical model.

Now if only Penn State and Illinois would listen.  

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

1

7 10 2.5 1 -7

2-5

24 -0.33 18 -0.61 5 1

6-9

22 0.59 11 -0.64 10 2.2

10+

40 .18 2 3.5 20 0.6

Thanks to Ohio State, we now have our first punt of the year on 4th and 1 from the Gray Zone. You might say "Well, it worked out for them since the next score was an Ohio State touchdown." But keep in mind that the touchdown came as a result of Ohio State converting a 4th and goal at the 1, so they kind of cancel each other out. On top of that, had they gone for it in the gray zone, they might have scored on that drive and the next one. And as it turns out, they certainly could have used all the opportunities to score as they could get.

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