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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 10

Big Ten LogoThere was a lot at stake in the final week of Big Ten play this week. Three different games had an impact on not only the Big Ten Championship Game, but the College Football playoff as well. Unfortunately for the viewers, none of the games were really close in the 4th quarter. But that doesn't mean we can't analyze the 4th down decisions in the first 3 quarters and see whether the losing teams had opportunities to score more points.

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.

We should apply the same approach to the 4th down calculator. Coaches should consider other factors, but the 4th down calculator 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.

Iowa 28 - Nebraska 20

Imagine the state of confusion and utter disbelief the entire country will be in if Iowa wins the College Football Playoff. For that reason alone, I hope it happens.

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

6 1 6 0 0 1.09
Nebraska 5 1 4 0 1 0.79

Iowa began the game with a very confusing 4th down decision: on a 4th and 2 from the Nebraska 38 yard line, they punted. It's only two yards, and Iowa has one of the better offenses in the Big Ten. In fact, on that day Hawkeye running back Jordan Canzeri averaged 8.2 yards per carry...and you punt on 4th and 2 in Nebraska territory? What a terrible decision. It didn't cost Iowa in this game, but they are going to be underdogs in every game they play the rest of the season. If they really want a chance at shocking the world and winning the College Football Playoff, they can't waste opportunities to score like this one. 

Nebraska's disagreement with the 4th down calculator did cost them in this game. On a 4th and 1 at their own 34, they punted. The decision was a bad one, but the result was a disaster. After a good punt return and a Nebraska penalty, Iowa started their drive from the Nebraska 33 yard line. So Iowa started with better field position than if Nebraska would have went for it on 4th down and rushed for no gain. Two plays later, Iowa was in the end zone to take an 11 point lead. And that's the margin they would find themselves leading by going into 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
Nebraska
(Down by 11)
13:33 6 57 Go for it Punt 6.6% 6.4% (Punt)
Iowa
(Up by 11)
11:24 1 85 Go for it Punt 89.8% 89.2% (Punt)
Nebraska
(Down by 11)
6:37 1 19 Go for it Go for it 9.3% 4.1% (FG)

Down by 11, Nebraska punted on a 4th and 6 near midfield. The stats say to go for it, but the win probability is so close you really can't fault either decision. But that punt set up a situation Iowa found themselves in earlier this year. In their Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, Iowa had a 4th and 1 on their own 24 yard line clinging to a 4 point lead. The stats said to go for it, and that is exactly what Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz did. They converted, and went on to win the game. But here, Ferentz decided to punt. It's a close decision, but remember how good this Iowa running game is. Because of that, I think they should have gone for it.

Speaking of going for it, Nebraska finally did that on their next drive. They were in field goal range, so you'll hear people say you have to "take the points and cut it to a one possession game." Except that field goals can be missed, and an 8 point lead could be either a one or two possession game. Plus, if you're down by two scores in the 4th quarter, you're probably going to have to go for it on 4th down at some point. It doesn't get any easier than 4th and 1, so Nebraska clearly made the correct decision to go for it. Now, the play they called was a fade route to the end zone (that fell incomplete), so you can question that all you like. But to have the best chance of winning the game, Nebraska had to go for it here.

But the result didn't work out for them, and Iowa is still alive for a shot at making the college football playoff. 

Michigan State 55 - Penn State 16

The Spartans picked a good time to have their highest scoring game of the season.

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 St 6 2 3 1 2 1.62
Michigan St 2 0 2 0 0 0

Michigan State only had two 4th downs through the first 3 quarters. I guess that's what happens when you're scoring so often. Luckily, there is a lot to talk about with Penn State. The first 4th down of a game was a 4th and 3 from midfield for the Nittany Lions. The stats say to go for it, but the difference between going for it and punting is only 0.07 points. Considering Michigan State has one of the better defenses in the Big Ten and Penn State has one of the worst offenses, I don't see any problem with Penn State's decision to punt it here.

But a couple of yards makes a huge difference. In the next possession, Penn State had another 4th and 3, but this time they were at the Michigan State 32 yard line. By being 18 yards closer, the difference between punting and going for it is now 1.2 points. There is no way your offense can be bad enough to warrant punting. And luckily for Penn State, they listened to the stats, as they went for it and picked up the first down. So far, so good for the Nittany Lions.

But it wouldn't last.

On 4th and goal from the 1, Penn State kicked a field goal. This is the worst decision a coach can make on 4th down, as it cost Penn State 1.55 expected points. And to add insult to injury, Penn State lost to Michigan last week thanks in large part to their decision to settle for field goals inside the 10 (Franklin also kicked a field goal on 4th and goal from the 1 against the Wolverines). And they went right back and did the same thing this week. As a double digit underdog. On the road. Against the #5 team in the country. You simply can't leave points on the table like that if you're going to pull the upset. 

To Franklin's credit, he did later go for it on 4th and 1 at his own 46 yard line. They successfully converted, and soon found themselves deep in Michigan State territory. But unfortunately they lost a fumble that Michigan State returned for a touchdown, and the rout was on.

Ohio State 42 - Michigan 13

It would appear that busting buckeyes on grave sites does not correlate with wins.

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

2 0 1 0 1 0
Michigan 4 1 3 1 0 0.36

On Michigan's opening possession, they punted on a 4th and 5 from the Ohio State 36 yard line. The calculator assumes the punt is downed at the 10 yard line, and using that, the model suggests going for it. In fact, even if you guarantee to me that the punt is downed at the 1 yard line, the calculator still says to go for it. When you're only 36 yards from the end zone, you can't willingly pass on opportunities to score points. Unfortunately for Michigan, they didn't down the punt at the 1 yard line. Or even the 10 yard line. The punt sailed into the end zone for a touchback, and Michigan traded an opportunity to score points for 16 yards of field position. And as we later saw, they desperately needed all the points they could get.  

The calculator has been very unhappy with Ohio State's 4th and 1 decision the previous two weeks. Their conservative decisions may have even cost them a chance at the Big Ten Championship game. But that wasn't the case this week. Their only 4th and 1 came at the Michigan 17 yard line late in the 3rd quarter, and they correctly went for it. They successfully converted, and the very next play they scored a back-breaking touchdown to take a commanding 17 point lead.

Ohio State has gone for it on 4th and 1 six times this season, and they've successfully converted on all six of them. And on top of that, they've scored a touchdown on every single drive where they've gone for it. Why this team would ever punt on 4th and 1 befuddles me. But they have in fact punted 7 times on 4th and 1. To me, that's just 7 wasted opportunities to score points. And against Michigan State, those wasted opportunities cost them a chance at repeating as National Champions.

Northwestern 24 - Illinois 14

If they win their bowl game, Northwestern will have a chance to finish the season with 11 wins for the first time since, well, since ever.

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 6 0 0 1.31
Illinois 10 4 7 1 2 0.76

At first, this looks really bad. There were sixteen 4th down decisions, and the calculator disagreed with half of them! But when we dig a little deeper it's not quite as bad as it seems. Northwestern punted on three different 4th and 2s, and on a 4th and 3. All of the punts came deep in their own territory and the strength of this Northwestern team is their defense, not their offense. In fact, on a yards per play basis, the Northwestern defense is 4th in the Big Ten and the offense is dead last. So being aggressive on 4th down deep in their own territory is not something Northwestern should be doing.

Illinois had two punts on 4th and 3. The calculator suggests going for it, but the difference in expected points between going for it and kicking is only 0.07, so there really isn't anything wrong with the decision to punt. However, their other two disagreements were confusing. On a 4th and 5 from the Northwestern 30 yard line, they kicked a field goal when they should have gone for it. The odds of converting on 4th and 5 aren't that much lower than a kicker making a 48 yard field goal, and with the former you can still score a touchdown. And sure enough, Illinois missed the field goal.

But the really confusing part came later in the game. With a 4th and 11 at the Northwestern 32 yard line, they went for it. In this case, the probability of converting on 4th and 11 is so low that you should kick a field goal. But Illinois logic says 5 yards is too far to try and go for it, but 11 yards isn't. It's true that they were down 14 points when they went for the 4th and 11, but it was still the third quarter. You should still be trying to maximize your points, which means kicking a field goal.

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 10)
4:28 1 4 Go for it Go for it 12.5% 3% (FG)
Illinois
(Down by 10)
4:28 6 9 Go for it FG 6.9% 2.9% (FG)

I want to focus on one 4th down in the 4th quarter. With a 4th and 1 at the Northwestern 4 yard line, Illinois decided to go for it. This was by far the correct decision, as kicking a field goal would have lowered their win probability by over 9 percent! However, Illinois got a false start penalty, and 4th and 1 become 4th and 6. You can see how costly a penalty that was, as it cut Illinois's chances of winning almost in half. But that assumes that Illinois continues to make the correct decision and go for it.

Unfortunately, with the longer distance they decided to kick the field goal. So the false start penalty took Illinois chances from 1 in 8 to 1 in 34. That's a huge penalty. And to make matters worse, Illinois missed the 27 yard field goal ("take the points," amirite?). Northwestern followed it up by running out the clock, and a losing season was sealed for Illinois.

Indiana 54 - Purdue 36

This game featured two of the worst defenses in the Big Ten, so first team to punt loses.

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 7 1 3 2 2 0.1
Purdue 6 1 4 0 2 0.79

Purdue was in fact the first team to punt, so that prophecy came true! It was a 4th and 6 where the calculator suggested punting, but still, "first team to punt loses" means first team to punt loses! And speaking of the calculator suggesting to punt, Indiana correctly defied that suggestion on their opening drive. Having one of the best offenses and worst defenses in the Big Ten, Indiana should always be more aggressive than the calculator suggests. And that's exactly what they did on a 4th and 5 from the Purdue 42. Instead of punting, they went for it, converted, and scored a touchdown on the drive.

Purdue had a 4th and 1 on the Indiana 43 that they went for and converted. They ended up fumbling on the goal line, but forced an Indiana punt and ended up scoring a touchdown on their next possession. The football gods remembered your aggressiveness on that 4th and 1, Purdue, and rewarded you accordingly.

It's just a shame the Boilermakers had to go and screw it all up.

The next possession after their touchdown drive, Purdue had a 4th and 1 on their own 34, and punted. Did you forget which defense you're playing Purdue? That day, the Boilermaker running backs averaged over 6 yards per carry. But for some reason the coaches thought gaining 1 yard on 4th down would just be too hard. And sure enough, after the punt Indiana scored a touchdown on the very next drive. To add injury to insult, the Hoosiers went for and converted a 4th and 1 on their drive. Purdue would never cut the deficit to single digits the rest of the game.

Wisconsin 31- Minnesota 21

Wisconsin has now beaten Minnesota 12 straight times.

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 0 3 2 0 0
Minnesota 4 2 4 0 0 1.2

Minnesota started their 4th down decision making by punting on a 4th and 2. Sure, it was from their own 35, but 2 yards is such a short distance that the calculator suggests going for it. And when you haven't beaten a team in 11 straight tries, maybe it would be a good idea to try something different. No? Okay, let's see how punting works out for you.

In this instance, it worked out great for Minnesota. Wisconsin threw an interception the very next play and Minnesota returned it for a touchdown. But their luck wouldn't last. Fast-forward to the end of the 3rd quarter. Minnesota is down by 17 points and has a 4th and 1 on their own 41 yard line. They line up to go for it. Great decision! Not only should you always go for it on 4th and 1, but you're down by 17, so you absolutely need to score points. But wait, what's this? Minnesota was only trying to get Wisconsin to jump offsides. When the Badgers didn't jump, Minnesota took a delay of game penalty and punted. Did I mention they were down by 17 points? Seventeen points! The decision to punt there was inexplicable.

But it somehow gets worse.

The next time Minnesota had the ball, they had a 4th and 2 with about 11 minutes to play in the game. And again, they are still down by 17 points! And yet, they punted. Minnesota wasn't likely to win either way, but the decision to punt cut their win probability almost in half (from 0.69% to 0.39%). And if you're going to come back from a 17 point deficit, odds are you're going have to convert a 4th down at some point. This one is only 2 yards! Why not try and convert now? Who knows what distances you'll be forced to have to convert later if you pass on this one! Oh, and may I remind you that you're down by 17 points?

Coaches are constantly telling their players to give 110% and to never give up. And they would certainly be furious if a player simply gave up and walked off the field before the clock hit 0:00. But that's exactly what Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys did here. He seemed to be more concerned about minimizing the margin Wisconsin would win by than he was about his own team's chances of winning the game. Sure, if he failed on a 4th and short in his own territory people might criticize him for giving Wisconsin the ball in great field position. But being a leader isn't about making decisions that will cause the least amount of criticism. It's about making the correct call in spite of what other people might think. 

Minnesota did score a touchdown with 5:30 left to cut the lead to 10. And they even got the ball back two more times after that. But how did those last two possessions end? By failing to convert on a 4th and 12 and throwing an interception on a 4th and 19. Kinda makes you wish you had gone for it when the distance to gain was only 1 and 2 yards, doesn't it?

Maryland 46 - Rutgers 41

Maryland picks up their first Big Ten win of the year.

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 1 3 3 2 0.11
Rutgers 5 2 4 1 0 1.2

On their opening drive, Maryland had a 4th and 1 at their own 44. They correctly went for it, but failed to convert. Rutgers took over in Maryland territory and scored a touchdown. The result didn't work out, but the decision by Maryland was correct. On a yards per play basis, Rutgers has the worst defense in the Big Ten. You should absolutely be aggressive against them on 4th down.

On the flip side, Rutgers has to know that they have the worst defense in the Big Ten. So it may not matter where the other team starts with the ball, which means you should be aggressive on 4th down. But, for whatever reason, Rutgers played it "safe." They punted on a 4th and 2 from midfield, and on a 4th and 1 from their own 28. Of course, I'm not sure how that's playing if "safe" when your defense has now given up 46 or more points five different times this season. If the Scarlet Knights are going to win a game, it's going to be by scoring as many points as they can. And punting on 4th and short is definitely not how you maximize your points.

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
Rutgers
(Down by 1)
4:57 4 12 Go for it FG 65.4% 59.7% (FG)

The one 4th quarter decision that I want to talk about surprised me. The calculator always thinks you should be aggressive and go for a touchdown on 4th and 5 and less when you're inside the opponents red zone. However, I thought the one time that would change is when a field goal would allow you to take the lead late in the 4th quarter. But here we see that the calculator overwhelming favors going for it, even though a field goal would put Rutgers up by 2 with less than 5 minutes left. Teams convert on 4th and 4 about 46% of the time, which is more than high enough to warrant going for the touchdown. In fact, Rutgers would have had to think they had a less than 35% chance of converting on 4th down to justify kicking a field goal. And all of this doesn't even take account the terrible Rutgers defense. Do you really think you're going to hold a 2 point lead? A touchdown and a 2 point conversion would make the worst case scenario overtime.

In the actual game, Rutgers kicked a field goal and Maryland scored a touchdown on the first play of their next drive. Rutgers then drove into Maryland territory, but failed on a 4th and 1, and Maryland ran out the clock to end the game. Overall, Maryland was the much more aggressive team on 4th down in this game. And it paid off in the end, as the Terrapins finally got a conference win.

Summary

Going to skip the summary for this week. Next week I'll break down the Big Ten Championship game, then go into a detailed analysis of all the 4th down decisions from the Big Ten this year.

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