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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 3

Every single Big Ten team played a conference game this week, giving us the most 4th downs to analyze yet. Last week, 4 of the 6 games were decided by one possession. This week only 2 of the 7 games were decided by one possession, so let's see if the losing teams missed opportunities to keep the game close! But first, a quick refresher on what this 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.

The same line of thought should be applied to the 4th down calculator. Coaches should also consider other factors, like the game situation, their kicker's range, 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

Also, 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.

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

Ohio State 49 - Maryland 21

Last week, Maryland had 8 fourth down decisions in the first 3 quarters, all of which ended in punts. And the 4th down calculator didn't disagree with a single one. The same thing couldn't happen again this week, could it?

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

5 1 3 1 1 0.19

Maryland

6 0 6 0 0 0

Well! For the 2nd straight week, 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. As a 33-point underdog, Maryland should have played very aggressively. However, that's kind of hard to do when your average distance to go on 4th down is 12.5 yards. Luckily for Maryland, they were scoring touchdowns on the possessions where they weren't punting, so they were able to keep this close for awhile.  But eventually, Ohio State was able to pull away.

Speaking of the Buckeyes, they called a pretty good game on 4th down. The calculator disagreed with their decision on the opening drive, but it was a close call either way. With a 4th and 2 on their own 28 yard line, Ohio State punted when the calculator says to go for it. But you'll see that the difference in expected points is only 0.19, so punting wasn't a terrible decision. And when you factor in the fact that Ohio State was a 33 point favorite and this was the first drive of the game, there is no reason to criticize Ohio State for taking the low variance option here. 

Now the difference between punting and going for it in your own territory is a close call on 4th and 2, but not so much on 4th and 1. If you punt on 4th and 1, you're giving up over half a point on average, and it's probably even more than that if your offense is as good as Ohio State's. And it looks like Buckeye coach Urban Meyer understands the statistics. For the 2nd straight week, he went for it on 4th and 1 in his own territory when most coaches always punt. And for the 2nd straight week he was rewarded, as Ohio State successfully converted the 4th down and scored a touchdown on the drive. Now if Meyer continues this the rest of the season (and he should!) eventually they're going to get stopped on the 4th and 1. And most likely, the announcers and/or media will announce how stupid of a decision it was. But I'm guessing they're not going to point out these two cases, where going for it directly led to a touchdown. You're not going to convert every single 4th and 1. But you'll convert most, which in the long run will result in more points for your team, as Ohio State is clearly demonstrating. 

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 (Punt or FG)
Maryland 10:26 8 47 Go for it Go for it 0.24% 0.12% (Punt)
Maryland 7:47 14 36 Go for it Go for it 0.25% 0.16% (FG)

 

In the first 3 quarters, Maryland never had a 4th down distance that was small enough to warrant going for it. Well, the distance part of that didn't change in the 4th quarter. But when you're making decisions based on win probability instead of expected points, sometimes you have to go for it no matter what the distance. And that's exactly what Maryland did. Down 14 points in the 4th quarter, they went for it twice on 4th and long. Although their chance of winning was slim either way, Maryland doubled their win probability by going for it on 4th and 8, and increased it by 56% on the 4th and 14. And with 10:26 left, I feel that most coaches would have punted on 4th and 8 from midfield. So props to the Terps for doing what they could to try and win.

Michigan 38 - Northwestern 0

Last week Michigan got a slow start against Maryland before breaking the game open in the 2nd half. This week, they jumped on Northwestern before the Wildcats even knew what happened.

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 7 1 0 0.88
Michigan

5

1 4 1 0 0.23

Last week Northwestern made 4 different 4th down decisions that the calculator disagreed with, costing them over 2 points. There was only one disagreement this week, but it was a really bad one. Down 14-0 in the 1st quarter, they Wildcats had a 4th and 1 on the Michigan 25. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to kick the field goal instead of going for it. Big Ten kickers make a 42-yard field goal about 67% of the time. Big Ten offenses convert on 4th and 1 about 68% of the time. So not only does going for it have the higher success rate, but you still have the opportunity to score a touchdown. The decision to kick was bad to begin with it, but it was made worse when they missed the field goal. I thought Northwestern was supposed to be the smart school.

Michigan's disagreement wasn't really bad at all. They punted on 4th and 9 when the calculator would have kicked a 51-yard field goal. The difference is only 0.23 points to begin with, but the calculator also acknowledges that coaches know more about their kicker's range than it. Wolverine kicker Kenny Allen has never attempted a 50+ yard field goal, so it's possible that distance just isn't in his range. If you rule out a field goal, the decision to punt is slightly better than going for it, so no problem with Michigan's decision.

This game was 31-0 Michigan going into the 4th quarter, so we won't bother analyzing any of those 4th down decisions.

Minnesota 41 - Purdue 13

Purdue followed up its strong showing against Michigan State with a dud against Minnesota. Minnesota followed up its dud against Northwestern with a strong showing against Purdue. 

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

Minnesota

5 2 3 2 0 0.94
Purdue 6 1 5 0 1 0.57

It didn't matter in the end, but Minnesota left some points on the board on their first two possessions. On their first drive, they punted on 4th and 1 from their own 34 yard line. Ask Ohio State if they think that's the correct decision. Then the next time they got the ball, they punted on 4th and 4 from the Minnesota 39. You would have to guarantee that the ball would be downed inside the 5 yard line to make punting the correct decision. And since there is never a guarantee with punting, the correct decision is to go for it.

Speaking of punting, Purdue's "incorrect" decision was to go for it when the calculator suggested punting. I put "incorrect" in quotes, because I think this was a decision where going against the calculator was the right call. The situation was a 4th and 10 for Purdue at the Minnesota 40 with 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. And at the time, Purdue was down 24-6. I said earlier that teams should maximize points until the 4th quarter, at which point they should maximize win probability. But I don't think that's a hard and fast rule. If we use win probability, going for it is the correct call. And this assumes that Purdue would down the punt at the 10 yard line. If they sail it into the end zone for a touchback, then going for it is correct in both expected points and win probability. Considering they were down 18 points and needed to score, Purdue was correct to go for it here. So don't worry Darrell Hazell, I'm not going to count this decision against you in the team summary. Cause, you know, I'm sure you read this and were very concerned.

Unfortunately for Hazell, Purdue did not convert and Minnesota scored a touchdown on the next possession. That means it's time to move on to the next game.    

Penn State 29 - Indiana 7

Apparently, the week of the Indiana-Penn State game has been dubbed as punt week. And it did not disappoint. 

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

10

1 9 0 1 0.56
Penn State 7 0 7 0 0 0

Sixteen punts, and this is just through the first 3 quarters! And the 4th down calculator agreed with 15 of them. That's B1G! As for that one disagreement...oh Indiana. You're so close, but yet so far. The Hoosiers are consistently one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, and it's usually a result of a poor defense. So since they have nothing to lose and the other team will likely score no matter where their starting field position is, Indiana should always implement an aggressive, high-variance strategy. And so far this year they have...kind of. 

Last week Indiana went for a 4th and 1 from midfield against Ohio State. Great! That's exactly the aggressive 4th down decision Indiana should be making. They converted, but 4 plays later they punted on 4th and 2 from the Ohio State 39. That...that is not the type of decision they should be making.

Well, the same thing happened against Penn State. After scoring their only touchdown, Indiana followed it up by recovering a surprise onside kick. A team playing on the road should onside kick if they can recover it 44% of the time or better. I couldn't find college data, but in the NFL the surprise onside kick rate is close to 60%. I imagine it would be similar in college, making the decision to onside kick a great call for Indiana. But yet again, 4 plays later they punted on 4th and 4 from the Penn State 45. Now, the decision to punt or go for it is very close. Assuming you down the punt at the 10 yard line, the calculator says to punt. But the difference in expected points is 0.07, so either decision is really fine. But the kicker is that we just saw Indiana attempt an onside kick! So Indiana was willing to risk giving Penn State the ball in Indiana territory. But risk giving it to them at their own 45 yard line? I guess it was too rich for their blood.

As for the Hoosier decision the calculator actually disagreed with, they punted on 4th and 1 from their own 34 yard line. Again, ask Ohio State about the dangers of actually going for it there. And at the time Indiana was down 19-7. I know it was punt week and all, but they needed points. 

Penn State didn't make an incorrect 4th down decision, and they had this game in control in the 4th quarter. So it's time to finally move on to the close games!

Iowa 29 - Illinois 20

Last week Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was flawless in his 4th down decision making. Can he follow it up with another perfect 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

Illinois 8 1 6 2 0 0.56
Iowa 8 1 5 1 2 1.27

Blast! The streak is over, as Ferentz made one bad decision. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about two very good decisions he made. On the same drive, Iowa had a pair of 4th and 1s. The first came at the Illinois 6 yard line, and the other was at the Illinois 1. Kicking a field goal in either of these situations is by far the worst decision a coach can make. A home team that kicks a field goal on 4th and 1 from the 1 is giving up 1.77 points, the highest difference you'll get with the 4th down calculator. Iowa converted the first 4th and 1, but failed on the 2nd. But the decision to go for it is so strong because failing isn't really failing at all. Even though Illinois got the ball back, Iowa was still more likely to be the next team to score. And that's exactly what happened. Illinois punted and Iowa got the ball close to midfield, where they completed a 5 play touchdown drive.

That brings us to the disagreement. With 15 seconds left in the half, Iowa kicked a field goal on 4th and goal from the 1. Keep in mind it was the end of the half. So if you fail, the terrible field position for your opponent won't matter since they'll run out the clock and get to halftime. But that only changes the decision from "worst one you can make" to "really bad". Big Ten teams score on 4th and goal from the 1 about 59% of the time, so your expected value is 4.1 points (I multiplied 0.59 by 6.96 instead of 7 to account for the 4% of times Big Ten kickers miss the extra point). That's greater than what you'll get from making a field goal, so the choice is still clearly to go for it.

Illinois's disagreement was punting on 4th and 1 from their own 38-yard line. Illinois was a double-digit underdog playing on the road. Punting on 4th and 1 is not the strategy you want to take to pull the upset.

And that brings us to the 4th quarter, where there is one decision I want to discuss. With 3:20 left in the game, Iowa was up by 3 points and had a 4th and 5 at the Illinois 16 yard line. The decision seems pretty obvious. Take the points and force Illinois to score a touchdown instead of simply being able to tie the game with a field goal, right? Obviously being up 6 points late in a game is better than being up 3.

Or is it?

I took college football games from 2005-2012, and separated out situations were a team was starting between their own 20 and 40 yard line with 1-5 minutes left in the game, and trailing by 3-6 points. I divided the teams into 2 groups. One group was losing by a field goal (Down a FG). The other group was losing by either 4, 5, or 6 points (Down a TD). I performed a 2 proportions test to determine whether the group that was down a TD actually won more often.

2 Proportions Test

Teams that needed a touchdown actually won more often than teams trailing by only a field goal. And the result was significant at the alpha = 0.10 level. So what is going on here? Well, teams that need a touchdown have to be aggressive and play for the win. But teams only down 3? Once the coach gets into field goal position, their play calling gets conservative and they play for the tie. And we see this results in fewer wins than if they were forced to play for the touchdown.

So Iowa would have actually been better off missing the field goal than making it. And of course, the best decision is to go for every 4th down until you either score a touchdown or turn the ball over on downs. Luckily for Iowa, after they made the field goal Illinois fumbled on their first play. Iowa recovered and ended up kicking another field goal, which was correct since obviously being up 9 points late in a game is better than being up 6.

Or is it?

No, it definitely is.

Wisconsin 23 - Nebraska 21

This game featured strong gusts of wind that caused a 12 yard punt. It's just too bad it didn't happen in the Penn State - Indiana 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

Wisconsin

9

1 6 2 1 0.56
Nebraska

9

1 7 2 0 0.56

Early in the game, Nebraska had a 4th and 1 at their on 45 yard line. On came the punt team when they should have gone for it. After a few punts were exchanged, Wisconsin had a 4th and 2 at the Nebraska 29. They smartly opted to go for it instead of attempting a field goal. The result was a successful conversion that led to a Wisconsin touchdown. One team did a good job maximizing their expected points early. The other lost their 4th game of the season in the final seconds of the game. 

But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for the Wisconsin 4th down decision making. Trailing by 7 late in the 3rd quarter, Wisconsin punted on 4th and 1 from their own 46 yard line. This decision is bad enough, but it was even worse when you consider that their previous punt had traveled 12 yards because of the wind. 12 yards! Why are you punting on 4th and 1 after that? But luckily for Wisconsin, the wind must have died down because they booted a 53 yard punt that took a very fortunate bounce and went out of bounds at the 1 yard line.

Then things got very interesting 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 Kick (Punt or FG)
Wisconsin 6:17 2 24 Go for it FG 81% 77%
Wisconsin 1:26 4 21 FG FG 56% 64%
Nebraska 1:03 5 26 Punt Punt 47% 51%

Leading by 3, Wisconsin decided to kick a field goal on 4th and 2 with 6 minutes left. They actually should have gone for it. Big Ten kickers make 42 yard field goals about 68% of the time, where as converting on 4th and 2 is successful about 60%. The chances of converting are slightly smaller, but that is outweighed by the fact that if you convert you'll be able to run more time off the clock and you can still score a touchdown to make it a 2 score game. And keep in mind that this doesn't even take into account the "3 point lead is better than a 6 point lead" situation we just saw before. So the difference is much larger than displayed above. Wisconsin clearly should have gone for it.

But Wisconsin made the field goal, and Nebraska quickly scored a go ahead touchdown to go up 1 point. And then Wisconsin gave us a great example of why it's better to be up 3 points than 4, 5, or 6. Starting at their own 9 yard line, Wisconsin was able to move to the Nebraska 27 yard line, calling 4 passes and 2 rushes. But then Wisconsin called 3 straight running plays, including one on 3rd and 7. Wisconsin got into field goal range, became ultra conservative, and decided they were fine with a 40+ yard field goal. It's almost as if coaches don't realize that the closer you are to the end zone, the better chance your kicker has of actually making the field goal. Especially college kickers. This is bad enough when the field goal is for the lead. But it's even worse when you're setting up a game tying field goal instead of trying to win in regulation with a touchdown. And that's exactly why you'd rather be up 3 points than 4, 5, or 6. And Wisconsin did its part to support my narrative, missing the field goal and giving the ball back to Nebraska.

But the breaks kept coming for Wisconsin (or rather, maybe they were going against Nebraska). With all 3 time outs left, Wisconsin was able to make Nebraska punt, and they drove down the field and made the game-winning field goal as time expired. Oh Nebraska, if only you could get that punt on 4th and 1 in the first quarter back.   

Michigan State 31 - Rutgers 24

For the 2nd straight week, Michigan State flirted with the possibility of a SPARTY NO! But for the 2nd straight, it was narrowly avoided.

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 1 2 2 1 0.11
Rutgers 6 0 5 0 1 0

The decision making was solid in this game. Well, until the end, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The only disagreement came when Michigan State went for it on 4th and 10 from the Rutgers 34 yard line. The calculator suggests kicking a 51-yard field goal. However, in his 3 years at Michigan State, kicker Michael Geiger has never attempted a 50+ yard field goal. So let's assume that is out of his range. The calculator then suggests punting, but you'll see the difference between punting and going for it is only 0.11 points. So there is no issue if the coach wants to go for it. And it paid off for Michigan State, as they converted and scored a touchdown two plays later.

Rutgers had their own 4th down conversion that led to a touchdown. Late in the 3rd quarter they had a 4th and 1 at the Michigan State 29. It doesn't matter where you are on the field, you should always go for it on 4th and 1. Rutgers did, they converted, and on the very next play they scored a touchdown.

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 (Punt or FG)
Michigan State 12:22 6 44 Punt Punt 77% 80%
Rutgers 7:15 6 44 Go for it Go for it 23.5% 23.2%
Rutgers 4:21 4 4 Go for it FG 43% 35%

With 12:22 left in the game, Michigan State correctly punted on 4th and 6 from the Rutgers 44 yard line. They downed the ball at the Rutgers 5 yard line, where the Scarlet Knights had an incredible drive. In the middle of the drive, they had a 4th and 6 from the Michigan State 44. The stats say to go for it, but just it's so close either decision is really fine. But considering Rutgers was a 2 touchdown underdog, I think the more aggressive call was the correct one. And that's exactly what Rutgers did, going for and converting the 4th down. But then Rutgers made the worst decision the 4th down calculator as seen yet. With 4th and goal from the Michigan State 4, Rutgers kicked a field goal to tie instead of going for the win. This decision lowered their win probability by 8%! By kicking, Rutgers needed all of the following to happen.

  1. Make the field goal (likely, but not automatic)
  2. Stop Michigan State from scoring in regulation
  3. Win in overtime

The third item on the list is really the biggest. Too often we equate tying the game to taking the lead. But the latter is really so much more valuable. By going for it on 4th down, Rutgers had the opportunity to take the lead. And even if they failed, Michigan State would be starting at their own 4 yard line. There was a good chance Rutgers would get the ball back with another chance to tie or win in regulation. But instead, they decided to tie the game, and we all know how the rest of the game went.

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.

Team Summary

Team Number of Disagreements Total Expected Points Lost
Northwestern 5 3.22
Indiana 3 2.56
Minnesota 4 2.07
Nebraska 3 1.38
Iowa 1 1.27
Illinois 3 1.19
Wisconsin 3 1.18
Michigan 2 1.16
Ohio State 3 0.92
Penn State 1 0.8
Michigan State 3 0.62
Rutgers 1 0.3
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

8

0 3 4.7

*

*

25-49

0

0

3 1.33 1 -7

1-24

*

* 5 2 2 3

 

The Gray Zone (4th downs 25-50 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

9 1.22 6 -1.67 2 -2

6-9

8 0.625 2 -2 4 2.5

10+

9 0.67 1 7 5 1.2

 

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