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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 5

Nebraska lost another close game, teams continue to incorrectly punt to Ohio State on 4th and short, and Northwestern keeps making terrible 4th down decisions. Another regular week for the Big Ten 4th down calculator.

In case you haven't read the earlier entries in this series, I've used Minitab Statistical Software to create a model to determine the correct 4th down decision in Big Ten Conference games. And for the rest of the college football season, I'll use that model to track every decision. However, the calculator isn’t meant to provide decisions written in stone. In hypothesis testing, it’s important to understand the difference between statistical and practical significance. A test that finds 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. If you're the coach, you should also consider other factors. But the 4th down calculator still provides a starting point for making the decision. 

I break the analysis for each game into two sections: 4th down decisions in the first 3 quarters, and 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.

Now on to the games!

Ohio State 49 - Rutgers 7

Ohio State had 6 consecutive drives that ended in a touchdown. The Buckeyes appear to have hit their stride with J.T. Barrett as quarterback.

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

Rutgers

8 3 6 1 1 1.6

Ohio State's offense was so good that they only had two 4th downs. And yet again, they correctly went for it on 4th and 1, converted, and scored a touchdown on the same drive. Ohio State is tough enough as it is, but with Urban Meyer making optimal 4th down decisions, they're going to be next to impossible to beat. Especially if their opponents keep making decisions that are...how should I put this nicely, Rutgers...not optimal.

To their credit, Rutgers started their 4th down decision making very well. On their opening drive, they had a 4th and 1 on the Ohio State 18 yard line. They correctly went for it and picked up the first down. But 3 plays later, they had a 4th and 6 on the Ohio State 11 yard line. The model says to go for it, but it's very close, as the difference is less than a tenth of a point. So Rutgers decision to kick a field goal wasn't that bad. Although the outcome was bad, as their kicker missed 29 yard field goal, a kick Big Ten kickers make about 86% of the time.

Things went downhill for Rutgers midway through the 2nd quarter. Trailing only 7-0, they had a 4th and 2 at the Ohio State 40 yard line and punted. This is a terrible decision even against an average Big Ten team, and we know Ohio State isn't your average Big Ten team. Rutgers was a 21-point underdog and Ohio State has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. The statistics say Rutgers lost 0.94 points by punting, but it was even worse when you consider the other factors that the calculator doesn't know. And sure enough, it took Ohio State all of 4 plays to drive 80 yards and score a touchdown.

Then, on the very next possession, the Scarlet Knights punted on 4th and 1 at their own 30. Hey Rutgers, did you not just see what punting on 4th and short did for you the previous possession? Sure, if you don't get the first down Ohio State has great field position. But their offense is so good, it doesn't matter where they start their drive. If you're going to beat this team, you need to score points. And just like before, after the punt it took Ohio State all of 4 plays to drive 65 yards and score a touchdown.

If any big underdog is going to upset Ohio State, they're going to have to do it by being aggressive on 4th down. Sure, if you fail on most of them you're going to get blown out. But look at the final score of this game: Rutgers "played it safe" and got blown out anyway. In fact, their two bad 4th down decisions directly led to Ohio State touchdowns that broke the game open. Please, Big Ten teams—stop willingly giving Ohio State possession of the football on 4th and short. If you're going to pull the upset, you're going to have to do so by scoring points, not punting the ball.

Wisconsin 24 - Illinois 13

Illinois lost a relatively close game. I hope they didn't leave any points on the field with poor 4th down decision making.

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 4 1 0 0
Illinois 7 4 5 2 0 2.03

Wow, through the first 3 quarters Illinois had seven 4th downs, and made the incorrect decision on 4 of them! Are we sure Tim Beckman was fired?

The first decision we can let slide. On a 4th and 2 from their own 25 yard line they punted. The calculator will always say to go for it on 4th and 2 in your own territory, but the difference in expected points is only 0.19, so punting isn't a terrible decision. But then things got bad for the Illini. On a 4th and 4 from the Wisconsin 7, they kicked a field goal instead of going for it. Because it was 4th and 4, this might not seem like a terrible decision, but it actually is. They lost 0.71 points by kicking the field goal. The reason going for it is such a strong decision is because even if you fail, the other team starts their drive inside their own 10 yard line. So the defense is actually more likely to be the next team to score. Inside the 10 yard line, being aggressive is really a win/win.

In the 3rd quarter Illinois punted on 4th and 1 two different times. They were in their own territory both times, but teams convert on 4th and 1 so often that the benefits outweigh the risks. And honestly, punting the ball to the other team is a risk too! Illinois's second 4th and 1 punt happened with 2 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. At the time, they were trailing by 4 points. But after they gave Wisconsin the ball, the Badgers went on a soul-crushing 7-minute, 39-second touchdown drive, making it a two-possession game. The next time Illinois had a 4th down, it was 4th and 12 with 3:28 left in the game and they were trailing by 11 points.

Wonder if they wish they could change their decision on that previous 4th and 1?

Michigan State 52 - Indiana 26

All season I've been saying Indiana should never punt. It's a little tongue in cheek, as obviously there are some times they should punt. But the combination of a great offense and a horrible defense means Indiana should by far be the most aggressive team on 4th down in the Big Ten. So how did they do 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

Indiana

4 1 3 1 0 0.56
Michigan St 6 1 4 1 1 0.14

Indiana only had four 4th downs in the first 3 quarters of the game. The calculator disagreed with only 1 decision, but when you consider that it's Indiana, I think that number becomes 3.

Indiana's first punt was on 4th and 10 at their own 25 yard line. No problems there. But their next drive, they punted on 4th and 5 from the Michigan State 44. The calculator says to punt, but the difference between punting and going for it is only 0.05 points. The calculator assumes you only gain 5 yards if you convert the 4th down. But in reality, you'll usually gain more yards, which strengthens the decision to go for it. And on top of that, remember that Indiana has a great offense and a terrible defense. They absolutely should have gone for it here.

The final score was lopsided, but this was actually a much closer game than the final score indicates. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Indiana found itself only trailing by 2. They had a 4th and 1 at their own 27, and they decided to punt. The calculator's feelings on punting on 4th and 1 have been well documented. But Indiana got the ball back still only down 2, and drove to the Michigan State 24 yard line, where they had a 4th and 4. The calculator says to kick the field goal, but the difference is only 0.15 points. And again, this is Indiana. Even if you make it, do you really think a 1 point lead is going to hold up with your defense? They needed to be aggressive and play for the touchdown. But instead they kicked, and ended up missing the field goal.

Before we get to the 4th quarter, I want to quickly mention the Michigan State 4th down decision that the calculator disagreed with. They went for it on 4th and 6 from the Indiana 27 when the calculator says to go for it. But you'll see in the table above that the difference is only 0.14 points. And have I mentioned that the Indiana defense is bad? So there is really no issue with the decision here. Plus, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio has been consistently making this type of decision all season. This is the fourth time Michigan State has gone for it when the calculator suggests kicking a field goal. And it worked out well for him here, as they converted and scored a touchdown on the drive.

4th Down Decisions in the 4th Quarter

Team Time Left 4th Down Distance Yards to End Zone Calculator Decision Coach Decision Win Probability Go For It Win Probability Kick
Michigan St
(Up by 2)
12:44 3 3 Go for it FG 88.4% 86.6%
Indiana
(Down by 5)
9:19 11 58 Punt Punt 8.8% 10.2%
Indiana
(Down by 12)
3:52 5 56 Go for it Go for it 0.1% 0.04%

Between their opponents' 25 and 35 yard line, Michigan State has been aggressive with their 4th down decisions all season. But that aggressiveness didn't translate to the goal line, as the Spartans kicked a field goal on their first possession of the 4th quarter instead of going for it. The field goal pushed their lead from 2 points to 5 points, so Indiana still had a chance to take lead with a touchdown. And that's why Michigan State should have gone for it. With the Hoosier offense being so good, the Spartans really should have tried to make this a 2-possession game. And even if they failed, Indiana would have to start their drive at their own 3 yard line. It's a win/win.

Luckily for Michigan State, the Hosiers found themselves in a 4th and 11 on their next drive. The calculator agreed with the coach's decision to punt, but the statistics don't know how bad Indiana's defense is. It's hard to quantify how much that would affect the numbers, but it would definitely make win probabilities for kicking and going for it closer. Even so, it's hard to fault Indiana for punting on 4th and 11, as teams convert that distance only 27% of the time. So really, either decision would have been okay here.

Unfortunately for Indiana, the decision to punt backfired.s Michigan State went on a 4-and-a-half-minute touchdown drive, extending their lead to 12 points. Indiana then correctly went for a 4th and 5, although at that point their chances of winning were almost 0. And when the 4th down pass fell incomplete, any chance of an Indiana upset vanished completely.

Penn State 31 - Maryland 30

This was a pretty crazy game. Early on, it looked like neither team would be able to score. Then we had 4 straight possessions that ended in touchdowns. Then the next 8 possessions after that resulted in a total of 3 points. Crazy.  

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Penn State

6 1 5 1 0 0.19
Maryland 5 1 2 3 0 0.04


From a 4th down decision making perspective, this game was actually pretty boring through 3 quarters. Most of the decisions were pretty cut and dry. And the two disagreements with the calculator weren't really bad decisions at all. Maryland kicked a field goal on 4th and 5 from the Penn State 26 when the calculator would have gone for it. But the difference in expected points is only 0.04, so really either decision was fine.

Then on their first possession of the 2nd half, Penn State punted on 4th and 2 from their own 35. The stats say to go for it, but again the difference between kicking and going for it is pretty small. So the decision to punt really isn't too bad. And this punt led to 4 straight possessions that ended in a touchdown, bringing us to a wild 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
Maryland
(Down by 4)
11:49 6 18 Go for it FG 33.9% 30.8% (FG)
Maryland
(Down by 4)
10:15 11 11 FG FG 31.3% 32.2% (FG)
Penn State
(Up by 1)
9:42 10 28 FG FG 63.8% 66.7% (FG)
Maryland
(Down by 1)
7:51 2 64 Go for it Go for it 37.7% 34.9% (Punt)
Maryland
(Down by 1)
3:05 10 45 Punt Go for it 35% 43.1% (Punt)
Penn State
(Up by 1)
1:21 6 58 Punt Punt 47.5% 60.7% (Punt)

This game featured the most 4th down decisions in the 4th quarter that we've seen this year. It started with Maryland kicking a field goal down by 4 on a 4th and 6. Going by expected value, this is the correct decision. But when you're using win probability, the Terrapins should have went for it. The reason of course being that they were down 4, so a field goal didn't change the fact that they were still losing. Luckily for Maryland, the Nittany Lions roughed the kicker, and they got a first down anyway. But they weren't able to do anything with it, as 3 plays later they had a 4th and goal from the 11 yard line. This time kicking was the correct decision, since teams convert on 4th and goal from the 11 only 20% of the time. The possibility of a touchdown was so small, that taking the points was the correct decision, despite the fact they were still losing anyway.

After the teams exchanged fumbles on back-to-back plays (I told you, this game was crazy), Penn State correctly attempted a 45-yard field goal on 4th and 10. But they missed it, leaving the door open for Maryland to win with a field goal of their own. On their next possession, Maryland faced a 4th and 2 from their own 36 yard line. I feel like most coaches would punt in this situation, but to Maryland's credit they correctly went for it. They didn't convert, but after another Penn State fumble, they got the ball back at midfield. Maryland quickly found itself in 4th and long with 3 minutes left. And it's here that the 4th down calculator really shocked me.

It suggested to punt.

Lots of things to consider here. First, teams only convert 4th and ten 28.4% of the time. So a big part of this decision stems from the fact that Maryland wasn't likely to convert. Second, they were only down by 1 point. If they punted and stopped Penn State, they would likely get the ball back around midfield. They wouldn't need many yards to get into field goal range. If they failed to convert and stopped Penn State, they would likely get the ball back deep in their own territory. That's a lot more yards that they would need to get into field goal range.

So if I were Maryland's coach, I would have thought about it like this: I have a 28.4% chance of getting this first down. Do I think my chances of getting a 3 and out from Penn State are greater? Because one Penn State first down would end the game. So if I don't think I can stop the Penn State offense, there is no reason to punt since it ends the game. But if I like my chances of getting a stop, then I'd much rather have the ball close to midfield than deep in my own territory. Personally, without looking at the numbers my first instinct was that you have to go for it here. But the difference in win probability is pretty large. And considering teams usually get very conservative and just run the ball late in games with the lead, on second thought I would have taken my chances punting.

Maryland decided to go for it and they failed to convert. However, they did get the 3 and out from Penn State that they needed. Maryland had one final shot to win the game, starting at their own 25 yard line with 1:15 left in the game. But, their first play was an interception that sealed the game. Could things have worked out differently if that drive had started from midfield? Possibly. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.

Northwestern 30 - Nebraska 28

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Nebraska lost a close football game on Saturday.

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 5 1 4 1 0 1.55
Nebraska 6 1 4 2 0 0.19

Northwestern continues to lead the Big Ten in puzzling 4th down decision-making. On Saturday, they made the worst 4th down decision a coach can make (once you rule out things like going for it on 4th and 20 from your own 10). On 4th and goal from the Nebraska 1, they kicked a field goal. That single decision cost them over a point and a half. On average, teams convert on 4th and goal from the 1 about 59% of the time. Multiply that by 6.96 (to account for the 4% of times teams miss the extra point), and you get an expected value of 4.1 points. Last time I checked, that's greater than the 3 points you get for a field goal. But it gets even worse once you consider that if you fail, the other team starts with the ball on the 1 yard line. So even then, you're more likely to be the next team to score. Failing isn't really failing at all! It amazes me how Northwestern is the "smart" school, yet each week they continue to make terrible 4th down decisions.

Nebraska's lone folly in the 4th down decision making department was punting on 4th and 3 from their own 45 yard line. The stats say to go for it, but the difference between going and punting is pretty small. So no problem with the decision. Now let's move on 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
(Down by 2)
13:53 10 75 Punt Punt 20% 23.6% (Punt)
Nebraska
(Up by 2)
12:41 3 74 Punt Punt 62.8% 63.1% (Punt)
Nebraska
(Down by 5)
8:42 20 85 Punt Punt 9.6% 16.2% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Up by 5)
7:27 6 9 FG FG 85% 85.5% (FG)
Nebraska
(Down by 8)
5:29 6 40 Go for it Go for it 11.1% 8% (Punt)


Five 4th down decisions in the 4th quarter, and 5 correct calls. Impressive! It started with an obvious punt from Northwestern on 4th and 10. Then it continued with a not so obvious punt by Nebraska on 4th and 3. The stats say to punt, but the difference in win probability is only 0.3%. When the difference is that close, you should consider the game situation. If you're losing, a heavy underdog, or have a really bad defense, you might want to consider an aggressive strategy and go for it. But none of those thing applied to Nebraska, so kicking was the correct decision.

And what a kick it was! The punt traveled 63 yards, and after a Northwestern penalty the ball was placed all the way back at the Northwestern 8 yard line. Then, of course, Northwestern proceeded to drive 92 yards for the touchdown. That's just Nebraska's luck. Then, after Nebraska punted on a 4th and 20 (obviously the correct call), Northwestern made a very interesting decision. On a 4th and 6 from the Nebraska 9 yard line, they kicked a field goal. But again, you'll see the win probabilities are very close. So is there any other information that should have tipped this decision one way or the other?

Yes there is.

Teams convert on 4th and 6 about 37% of the time. That's the number the calculator uses. However, if it's 4th and goal from the 6, then that probability drops to 29%. This wasn't 4th and goal, but because the ball was at the 9 yard line it was probably more similar to 4th and goal from the 6 than a typical 4th and 6 from further back on the field. If we use a 4th down conversion rate closer to 29%, then the decision to kick becomes an obvious one. 

Our last 4th down decision came on a situation similar to that we saw in the Maryland/Penn State game. Losing late in the game with the ball around midfield, both Maryland and Nebraska faced 4th downs. The calculator told Maryland to punt, but advised Nebraska to go for it. What gives?

Well, one of the big differences is the distance. Nebraska's 4th and 6 has a higher conversion rate than Maryland's 4th and 10. The other is the score. Maryland was only down by a single point, needing just one possession to win the game. Nebraska was down by 8, needing...well we don't know how many possessions they need. It's like Schrodinger's cat—Nebraska is simultaneously losing by both 1 possession and 2 possessions, and only when Nebraska attempts a 2-point conversation will we know which one it is. Too often coaches act like an 8-point deficit is a one-possession game. But you really need to plan for the fact that you might need two possessions, and that's why Nebraska was correct to go for it here. They converted and ended up scoring a touchdown on the drive. However, they missed the two point conversion. And after 3 Northwestern first downs, the clock expired, and Nebraska found itself yet again on the losing side of a one-score game.

Summary

Each week, I’ll summarize the times coaches disagreed with the 4th down calculator and the difference in expected points between the coach’s decision and the calculator’s decision. I’ll do this only for the 1st 3 quarters since I’m tracking expected points and not win probability. I also want to track decisions made on 4th and 1, and decisions made between midfield and the opponent’s 25 yard line. I’ll call this area the “Gray Zone.” These will be pretty sparse now, but will fill up as the season goes along. Then we can easily compare the actual outcomes of different decisions in similar situations.

Team Summary

Team Number of Disagreements Total Expected Points Lost
Northwestern 8 5.78
Indiana 5 3.3
Illinois 7 3.21
Minnesota 6 2.82
Rutgers 5 2.69
Michigan 5 2.59
Penn State 4 2.2
Michigan State 5 2.18
Iowa 3 1.8
Nebraska 5 1.78
Wisconsin 3 1.18
Ohio State 3 0.92
Purdue 1 0.24
Maryland 1 0.04

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has opened up a sizable lead as the worst 4th down decision maker in the Big Ten. At this point, Northwestern's almost left an entire touchdown on the field. But how has the real-life outcome compared to what we would expect? In the 8 decisions where Fitzgerald disagreed with the calculator, the total expected points for the decisions Fitzgerald made was 11.6 points. Northwestern has actually scored a net of 13 points after those decisions. So the real outcome is pretty close to what we would expect. As for the decisions the calculator said Fitzgerald should have made, that would have given him a total of 17.4 expected points. Obviously we can't know how those decisions would have played out in real life, but the expected number is greater than the actual number of points Northwestern has scored. So we can say that in both theory, and in reality, Northwestern is leaving points on the table with their 4th down decision making. 

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

14 -0.71 3 4.67

*

*

25-49

0

0

5 3.6 1 -7

1-24

*

* 7 1.429 3 3

Surprisingly, we've had only two 4th and 1s inside a team's 25 yard line all year. Both times, the offense punted and was the next team to score a touchdown. Things haven't gone as well for the teams that punt on 4th and 1 between their own 25 yard line and midfield. Their opponent has been the next team to score, with an average of 0.71 points. Sadly, only 3 teams have gone for it on 4th and 1 behind midfield even though that's the optimal decision. Two of those cases were by Ohio State, who converted and scored a touchdown on the drive. The third instance was Indiana, who converted but ended up punting later in the drive. Nobody scored in that game before halftime, giving us an average of 4.67 points for teams that went for it.

We see that teams become much more aggressive once they cross midfield. Out of the sixteen 4th and 1s in opponent territory, teams have made the optimal decision on 12 of them. Hooray! And part of me is secretly happy that the team who kicked a 42-yard field goal on 4th and 1 ended up missing it and having their opponent score a touchdown next. Wondering who team that was? You guessed it. Northwestern! In fact, Northwestern is one of the teams that kicked a field goal on 4th and 1 inside the 25 yard line too! There's a reason they're leading the Big Ten in bad 4th down decision making.

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

5 3.6 1 -7

2-5

13 0.69 9 -0.89 3 -0.33

6-9

14 1.29 7 -1.57 5 2.6

10+

18 -1.39 1 7 8 1.86

Thankfully, teams are correctly going for it on 4th and 1 in the Gray Zone. But once the distance becomes 2 yards or more, punting reigns supreme. And the teams that are being aggressive aren't being rewarded. Going for it has the lowest average next score for both the 2-5 and the 6-9 groups. Usually, going for it is the optimal decision, especially when the distance is only 2-5 yards. So we'll have to see if things even out anymore as the season goes along. 

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