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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 7

Going into Saturday, Nebraska was 0-5 in games decided by 7 points or less and Michigan State was 4-0 in games decided by 7 points or less. You'll often hear sports analysts use this as proof that one team chokes under the pressure and the other team knows how to win in the clutch. But in reality, the result in close games can have just as much to do with luck as it can skill.

Consider the formula that the Big Ten 4th down calculator uses for win probability. The general idea is that a team's final margin of victory can be approximated as a normal random variable with a mean of the Vegas line and a standard deviation of the difference between the final margin and the Vegas line (which in college football is 15.53). For example, if you're favored by two touchdowns you have approximately a 82% chance of winning at the beginning of the game.

Probability Distribution Plot

We can clearly see that the better team will win the game most of the time. But as the game is being played, both the mean and the standard deviation decrease to account for the diminishing time remaining in the game. If the game is tied going into the 4th quarter and the current situation on the field gives both teams an expected value of 0, the probability of the favored team winning drops to 67%. 

The team with more skill is still likely to win, but we see it's not as sure of a thing. And their probability of winning keeps decreasing as the time decreases. If the game is still tied with 5 minutes left, we'd expect the team with more "skill" to win only 60% of the time! Remember, this team was a two-touchdown favorite! And if the game comes down to the final play, the most random of events can decide the outcome of the game. 

In Michigan State's win over Oregon, Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams overthrew a wide open receiver that would have given Oregon the lead with less than 90 seconds left in the game. And when the Spartans beat Michigan, well...you know what happened on the final play of that game. As for Nebraska, they lost to BYU on a 42-yard Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game. In fact, Nebraska's first 4 losses of the season came on their opponents' final offensive play of the game. It's not that Michigan State had some special ability to win close games and Nebraska didn't. Michigan State was just having the lucky breaks go their way at the end of games and Nebraska wasn't.

But the thing about lucky breaks is that they can't go for you or against you forever.

And sure enough, at the end of the Nebraska/Michigan State game, Nebraska threw a touchdown pass with 17 seconds left to take the lead. Except it clearly looked like the receiver ran out of bounds on his own before catching the ball, which meant there should have been a penalty on the play and the touchdown shouldn't have counted. However, the referees strangely let the play stand, and Nebraska went on to win. The call by the ref could have gone either way, and it had nothing to do with either team's ability to win or lose close games. So the next you hear a narrative about a team based on the results of close games, don't believe it. Because chances are, factors outside their control influenced the outcome of their close games just as much as any ability they had did. 

Now let's move on to the games! If you're new to this and want to know more about what exactly the Big Ten 4th down calculator does, you can read the intro from a previous weeks post.

Illinois 48 - Purdue 14

Purdue is leading the country in 4th down attempts, and is also one of the best teams in the Big Ten in 4th down decision making. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, that didn't help them at all against Illinois. 

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

7 2 2 3 2 0.53
Purdue 7 0 7 0 0 0


Purdue continues it's great 4th down decision making, but this week it wasn't for reasons that Purdue would like. Every 4th down Purdue had in the first 3 quarters ended in a punt, and the distances were so far that the calculator agreed with all of them. Purdue did go for it a couple of times on 4th down in the 4th quarter, but by then the game was already out of hand, so it didn't really have an effect on the outcome. 

Illinois had two 4th downs in the same drive that the calculator disagreed with. First, they had a 4th and 6 at the Purdue 32 yard line. They decided to go for it when the calculator suggested kicking a 49 yard field goal. Now, sometimes this long of a field goal is out of a kicker's range, and in that case the calculator fully supports going for it over punting. But Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski is 3 for 7 in his college career from 50 or more yards, so he definitely has the leg. It's hard to blame a coach for being aggressive since they are typically so conservative, but Illinois should have kicked the field goal here. Of course, that makes their decision later in the drive pretty ironic. With a 4th and 3 at the Purdue 16 yard line, they decided to kick a field goal when they should have gone for it. Sure, it was an easier field goal to make, but 4th and 3 is also a lot easier to make than 4th and 6! So the coach went for it when he should have kicked, and then kicked when he should have gone for it. Go figure.  

Illinois had this game wrapped up by the 4th quarter, so let's move on to the next game.

Michigan 49 - Rutgers 16

Rutgers has now allowed 48 or more points in their last 4 games. Maybe they should join Indiana in the #NeverPunt support group. After all, if your defense is that bad, it doesn't really matter where the other teams starts their drives from, does 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

Rutgers

7 1 4 2 1 0.75
Michigan 3 2 1 2 0 0.73

Okay, to Rutgers credit they never really had a chance to be aggressive in this game. Their first three punts were on 4th down distances of 10, 12, and 19 yards. Even with a terrible defense, you should probably be punting in those situations. The only disagreement Rutgers had was actually being aggressive. Instead of kicking a field goal on 4th and 7 at the Michigan 18, they decided to go for it. You'll see that the difference in expected points is 0.75, so out of context it was a really bad decision. But they were down 46-16 at the time, so they went for it. Although with that big of a deficit, it didn't really matter either way.

Michigan's first disagreement was punting on 4th and 3 from their own 22 yard line. The calculator is always going to suggest going for it on 4th and 3, even deep in your own territory. But the difference in expected points is only 0.07, so teams should consider other factors to make their decision. In this case, Michigan was a heavy favorite, they were already winning by 22 points, and there were only 9 seconds left in the half. Punting here was absolutely the correct decision, so the calculator won't count it against them in the team summary.

The other disagreement was kicking a field goal on 4th and 3 from the Rutgers 16 when the calculator says to go for it. This cost Michigan 0.66 points, but at the time they were already up 27 points. So it didn't really matter to the outcome of the game.

Ohio State 28 - Minnesota 14

This game started with 6 straight possessions that ended in punts. That's B1G.

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

8 1 7 1 0 0.41
Ohio State 5 0 5 0 0 0

Lots of punts that the calculator agreed with in this game. The lone exception was a Minnesota punt on 4th and 2. Sure, it was on their own 23 yard line, but teams convert on 4th and 2 about 60% of the time. In addition, Minnesota was a 23-point underdog in this game. You're going to have to play aggressively to pull the upset. Punting here was the incorrect decision in general, but it was even worse for such a heavy underdog.

All these correct punts doesn't leave us with much to talk about here, so 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
Ohio State
(Up by 21)
14:42 4 65 Punt Punt 99.93% 99.96% (Punt)
Minnesota
(down by 21)
11:29 4 12 Go for it Go for it 0.08% 0.03% (FG)
Ohio State
(up by 14)
7:46 4 18 FG FG 99.92% 99.98% (FG)
Minnesota
(down by 14)
6:25 9 58 Go for it Punt 0.09% 0.04% (Punt)

Ohio State was up 21-0 entering the 4th quarter, but Minnesota was able to rally and actually make it a 7-point game. However, you'll see by the win probabilities that Ohio State had the game pretty well under control. The 4th down decisions went pretty well until Minnesota punted on a 4th and 9 with 6:25 left. Obviously 4th and 9 is a hard situation to convert. But they were down by 2 touchdowns with only 6 and a half minutes left. Even if you punt and get the ball back, it's going to be very hard to score two more times. Minnesota cut their chances of winning in half by punting. 

But the Golden Gophers did get the ball back and they even scored a touchdown to make it a 7-point game. But there were only 2 minutes left in the game, meaning they had to attempt an onside kick. Ohio State recovered the kick and ended up scoring a touchdown, effectively ending the game. But let's back up one minute to Minnesota's touchdown. Minnesota scored with two minutes left to cut the deficit to 8 points. They then kicked the field to make it a 7 point game, but they actually should have gone for 2.

And the decision isn't even a close one.

College teams convert a two-point conversion about 41% of the time, and they make the extra point 94% of the time. So in general, you're better off kicking the extra point unless the situation dictates it. But being down by 14 at the end of the game is a situation that absolutely dictates going for 2. The reason is that going for 2 leaves you the option of winning the game in regulation, whereas kicking the extra point requires you to win in overtime. And the key is that you get two conversion attempts. So if you miss on the first one, you can still tie the game up the second time around. Here's the math behind it.

Let's start with the strategy of kicking two extra points. The following table shows the different possibilities and the win probabilities for each one. 

1st Touchdown

2nd Touchdown

Win In Overtime

Win Probability

Made EP (94%)

Made EP (94%)

Road Team (44%)

38.9%

Missed EP (6%)

Lost in Regulation (0%)

0%

Missed EP (6%)

Made 2PT (41%)

Road Team (44%)

1.1%

Missed 2PT (59%)

Lost in Regulation (0%)

0%

The probability for winning in overtime comes from a previous blog post which found that home teams win in overtime about 56% of the time. So when you add it all up, the total probability of winning by kicking extra points is approximately 40%. Now what if they went for 2 after the first touchdown? Keep in mind, if you make the first two-point conversion, you just kick the extra point the second time around. But if you miss it, you go for two on the second touchdown to try to tie the game. 

1st Touchdown

2nd Touchdown

Win In Overtime

Win Probability

Made 2PT (41%)

Made EP (94%)

Won in Regulation (100%)

38.5%

Missed EP (6%)

Road Team (44%)

1.1%

Missed 2PT (59%)

Made 2PT (41%)

Road Team (44%)

10.6%

Missed 2PT (59%)

Lost in Regulation (0%)

0%

By going for 2 after the first touchdown, Minnesota increase their chances of winning to 50%! And these numbers are all pretty straightforward. It's crazy to think that with all the comebacks you see in college football every week, nobody has ever tried this strategy. Not even once! There are millions of dollars on the line for these college football teams, and yet they are unable (or unwilling) to do simple math. It boggles my mind.

Iowa 35 - Indiana 27

Iowa continues their undefeated season. I can't help but think the football gods are rewarding Kirk Ferentz for his decision earlier this season to go for it on 4th and 1 at his own 25 yard line against Wisconsin.Fortune favors the bold.

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

5 1 4 0 1 0.79
Indiana 5 0 4 1 0 0

So "technically" the 4th down calculator didn't disagree with any of Indiana's decisions. But considering how good their offense is and how bad their defense is, they should have been much more aggressive than the calculator suggests. Already down 7-0, they had a 4th and 4 at the Iowa 15. The calculator suggests kicking a field goal (which Indiana did), but the difference in expected points is 0.11. And keep in mind this is an Indiana defense that gave up 47 points to Southern Illinois (a team that is currently 3-6 and sitting next to last in the Missouri Valley Conference). Do you really think you're going to beat an undefeated team with field goals?

Things got worse on their next drive. They had a 4th and 5 at the Iowa 42 yard line. Again, the calculator suggests punting but the difference is only 0.09 points! If I'm Indiana, I'm absolutely going for it here. But instead, they punted. And sure enough, Iowa proceeded to drive 95 yards and scored a touchdown.

If Kirk Ferentz pleased the football gods by going for it on 4th and 1 against Wisconsin, he most certainly angered them in this game. On a 4th and 1 from their own 39, Iowa punted the ball. This is bad enough in general, but keep in mind you're going up against Indiana's defense! Iowa's two running backs averaged 5.7 yards per carry on the day. I think they could have managed getting a single yard here. But instead, they punted. And Indiana had an 80 yard drive on the next possession, which brought the game 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
Indiana
(Down by 4)
13:22 8 10 Go for it FG 29.9% 29.8% (FG)
Indiana (Down by 8) 9:13 17 82 Punt Punt 2.5% 2.9% (Punt)
Iowa
(Up by 15)
4:28 2 63 Punt Punt 99.8% 99.98% (Punt)

The 4th quarter gave us more evidence that Indiana shouldn't kick. Down by only 4, they had a 4th and 8 at the Iowa 10. Their chance of converting was bleak, with teams only converting 24% of the time (I considered it 4th and goal, which gave a lower probability than a normal 4th and 8, which I thought was a more accurate representation of Indiana's true probability of converting). But even so, the calculator ever so slightly favors going for it because you're still losing even with a field goal. But it's so close you should consider other factors. If I have a strong defense, I have no problem with the decision to kick here. But this is Indiana. They should have absolutely gone for it. Or if you are going to kick a field goal, how about following that up with a surprise onside kick! But no, Indiana doesn't like to try to win. After the field goal they kicked deep, and Iowa drove 75 yards for a touchdown. Then Indiana found themselves in a 4th down distance so long they had to punt, only to see Iowa score yet another touchdown on the vaunted Indiana defense. 

After an Indiana interception and a correct Iowa punt, Indiana drove 75 yards and scored a touchdown. They went for it on 4th down twice, but down 15 points with under 4 minutes left, you obviously have to go for it so I didn't include them in the table. I will note that Indiana scored their touchdown on a 4th and 9 from the Iowa 11. Not very different than the 4th and 8 they had earlier in the quarter when they decided to kick a field goal. Oh, Indiana...maybe some day.

Wisconsin 31 - Maryland 24

Maryland put up quite a fight here. But could a more aggressive strategy on 4th downs have turned this close loss into a victory?

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 6 1 4 1 1 0.79
Maryland 7 1 5 2 0 0.14

It may not have turned the close loss into a victory, but Maryland missed an opportunity on their first drive to be aggressive. They had a 4th and 3 at the Wisconsin 46 and decided to punt. The difference in expected points is only 0.14, so on the surface the decision to kick isn't terrible. But when you consider that Maryland was a two-touchdown underdog in this game, they should have absolutely been aggressive and went for it. 

With the game tied at 7, Wisconsin had a 4th and 1 at their own 22 yard line. The 4th down calculator was sad to see Wisconsin trot on the punt team. But wait, what's this? A fake punt that goes for 57 yards! That's the spirit, Bucky Badger! And on the very next play Wisconsin scored a touchdown. That just goes to show that it pays to be aggressive on 4th and 1!

But things weren't all peaches and cream for Wisconsin on 4th down. Later in the game they found themselves in the exact same position, 4th and 1 at their own 22. This time they actually did punt, to disastrous results. The punt went only 11 yards, and 3 plays later Maryland was in the end zone.

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 14)
12:74 11 66 Go for it Punt 0.81% 0.75% (Punt)
Maryland
(Down by 14)
9:10 10 83 Go for it Punt 0.24% 0.16% (Punt)
Maryland
(Down by 14)
5:32 2 72 Go for it Go for it 0.11% 0.03% (Punt)
Wisconsin
(Up by 7)
0:54 1 35 Go for it Go for it 98.4% 96.3% (Punt)

Wisconsin had some 4th downs in the 4th quarter. But they were all obvious decisions until the last one, so I left them out of the table. But let's focus on Maryland first. It's always interesting to see how long a team waits to get aggressive in the 4th quarter when they're trailing. One thing the calculator has shown this year is that they should start being aggressive much earlier, especially when down multiple scores. Here it suggests that Maryland should have gone for it on 4th and 11 and 4th and 10 in their own territory. By the time they did decide to go for it, their win probability had fallen from 0.81% to 0.11%. Things were bleak from the start, but that's still a decrease of 86%. If they were aggressive earlier, Maryland could have given themselves a reasonable chance to win instead of needing a miracle at the end.

Although they almost got the miracle they needed.

After scoring a touchdown to make it a 7 point game with 2:39 left (and yes, they should have gone for two after that touchdown instead of kicking the extra point), Maryland recovered an onside kick. Well, almost. They were called for offsides and had to re-kick, and Wisconsin was able to recover the second time around. This then set up a 4th and 1 decision for Wisconsin. A first down ended the game, but a failed conversion gave Maryland the ball at their own 35 with just under a minute left. So could making Maryland gain about 15-25 extra yards be worth the punt?

Our model for expected points isn't applicable to situations at the very end of games, so we can't apply the usual formula for win probability. To fix this, I went through play-by-play data for every college football game from 2006-2012. I found 87 games where a team had the ball in their own territory needing a touchdown with between 30 and 60 seconds left. I separated the data into two groups, teams starting inside their own 20, and teams starting between the 20 and midfield. I wanted to see if the teams that had fewer yards to gain won more often.

It turns out, they really don't.

Cross Tabulation

Teams that started outside their own 20 won slightly more often than teams inside their own 20, but the numbers are pretty close. So it doesn't look like Wisconsin would really gain anything by punting. Plus everybody remembers what happened in the end of that Michigan/Michigan State game, right? So going for it was absolutely the correct call by Wisconsin.

Northwestern 23 - Penn State 21

Was Northwestern able to fix their poor 4th down decision making in their win over Penn State?

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 10 1 10 0 0 0.41
Northwestern 8 1 6 2 0 0.79

Only one disagreement, for less than a point! This is actually the best week Northwestern has had when it comes to their 4th down decision making! Although I shouldn't give them too much praise, as their one disagreement was really bad. They punted on 4th and 1 from about midfield. That day, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson averaged 6.6 yards per carry. But somehow Pat Fitzgerald thought trying to gain one yard here was just too risky. Maybe next week you won't get a 4th down decision wrong, Northwestern. Maybe next week.

Penn State had 10 punts in the first 3 quarters, which sums up pretty well what kind of a day it was for the Nittany Lions. In fact, their best pass of the of game came from a wide receiver! Their incorrect 4th down decision was punting on a 4th and 2 from their own 17 yard line. However, when you consider the teams playing, punting this deep in their own territory wasn't too bad a decision. Northwestern has a very strong defense and the Penn State offense...well, did I mention their best pass was from a wide receiver? So the difference in expected points is actually probably less than 0.41. Although punting didn't work well for them, as Northwestern scored a touchdown on the very next drive. 

Later in the game, Penn State had a 4th and 8 from the Northwestern 36. If your kicker has the leg, the calculator likes a field goal here. But Penn State was actually playing their 2nd-string kicker, so it's probably safe to assume a 54 yard field goal is out of his range. In that case, the calculator says to punt, although the difference in expected points is only 0.1. So either decision is probably fine. Penn State decided to punt, and for the second time in the game punting backfired, as Northwestern drove 91 yards for their second touchdown of the game.

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 1)
11:25 11 76 Punt Punt 30.9% 35.9% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Down by 1)
3:19 17 38 Punt Punt 36.4% 46.9% (Punt)
Penn State
(Up by 1)
2:13 2 86 Go for it Punt 76.8% 75.8% (Punt)


Earlier, we saw that Maryland should have gone for it on 4th and 11 early in the 4th quarter when trailing by 2 scores. But when the deficit is only 1 point, there isn't a need to be as aggressive, as we see with Northwestern's first punt of the first quarter. And even with a 4th and 17 with 3 minutes left in the game, they still had a reasonable chance of winning by punting the ball back to Penn State. The Nittany Lions found themselves in a 4th and 2.

And yes, the calculator says they should have gone for it.

To calculate Penn State's win probability, I again went back through the play-by-play data and looked for teams down 1 or 2 points with 1 to 2 minutes left in the game. I divided the games into teams that had 1st and 10 inside the red zone (to see how often Penn State would lost if they failed on the 4th and 2) and teams that had the ball between their 40 and their opponents 40 (to get a win probability for punting). Here are the results.

Cross Tabulation

Most people think that going for it on 4th and 2 at your own is stupid because if you fail, you just lost the game. Well, most people would be wrong. Teams that start in the red zone down 1-2 points (like Northwestern would have) only win half of the time! I'm guessing this is because teams score with enough time left for their opponents to respond. And Penn State had all 3 timeouts left, so if they failed on 4th down they "should have" been able to manage the clock to have plenty of time to respond to a Northwestern score. Of course, I say "should have" because Penn State ended up managing the clock terribly in the actual game.

But enough talk about what would have happened if they failed...what if they converted on 4th down?That's where the benefit of going for it really lies. With a first down, Penn State would have all but ended the game (I gave them a win probability of 95% since Northwestern had a timeout left, so Penn State would have had to punt with around 30 seconds left).

But before we make a final conclusion that Penn State absolutely should have gone for it, we should consider other factors. Northwestern has one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and at this point I think jokes about Penn State's best throw coming from a wide receiver have stopping being funny. Teams convert on 4th and 2 about 60% of the time. But it doesn't take a probability much lower than that for the calculator to suggest a punt. In fact, if Penn State thought their chances of converting were 57% of lower (and they probably were), they should have punted.

Honestly, these numbers are so close that you shouldn't be upset with either decision. But of course people would have been irate if they went for it and failed. So that is why Penn State did what every other team in the country would do and punted. And as the final score indicates, the result didn't end well for them.

Nebraska 39 - Michigan State 38

This game had only 5 total punts in it. Watch out, Nebraska and Michigan State, we might have to send you to the Big 12!

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 State 4 1 2 1 1 0.07
Nebraska 5 0 2 2 1 0

The only disagreement with the calculator was Michigan State punting on 4th and 3. But the difference in expected points is so small that you can't be upset with the decision to kick. So instead let's compliment these teams for their great 4th down calls. Nebraska had a 4th and 1 that they correctly went for. They were successful, and the very next play was a 38 yard touchdown pass. Michigan State also had a 4th and 1 that they went for on their opening drive. They failed to convert, but it wouldn't be the last we'd see them be aggressive on 4th and 1. But for that, we'll have to head 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
Michigan St
(Up by 5)
9:01 1 44 Go for it Go for it 85.8% 84% (Punt)
Michigan St
(Up by 5)
0:55 8 42 Go for it Punt 96.6% 96.3% (Punt)

Sometimes if coaches fail on a 4th down early in the game, they'll be hesitant to try again. But not the Spartans! Despite previously  failing on a 4th and 1, they correctly went for it on their first drive of the 4th quarter. And this time they succeeded and went on to score a touchdown on the drive. When it comes to 4th and 1, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again!

Now things get crazy for Michigan State's next 4th down decision. On a 4th and 8 with less than a minute left, the Spartans took a delay of game penalty and punted. But this was the exact same scenario we saw in the Wisconsin-Maryland game, and there we concluded that punting really didn't do a whole lot to increase your win probability. And the "Outside 20" group had an average starting position of their own 38 yard line. That's really not very different than the 42 yard line that Nebraska would start from if the Spartans failed to convert. So even though teams convert on 4th and 8 only 32% of the time, punting does so little for you that the calculator suggests going for it.

Having said that, these probabilities are very close together, so it's not like the punt lost Michigan State the game. But it did willingly give Nebraska a chance. And as we saw Saturday night, if a team is given a chance, even the slimmest of ones, anything can happen.

Summary

Each week, I’ll summarize the times coaches disagreed with the 4th down calculator and the difference in expected points between the coach’s decision and the calculator’s decision. I’ll do this only for the 1st 3 quarters since I’m tracking expected points and not win probability. I also want to track decisions made on 4th and 1, and decisions made between midfield and the opponent’s 25 yard line. I call this area the “Gray Zone”. 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 9 6.57
Rutgers 7 3.96
Minnesota 9 3.81
Illinois 9 3.74
Michigan 7 3.64
Penn State 8 3.61
Indiana 5 3.3
Iowa 4 2.59
Nebraska 6 2.57
Michigan St 6 2.25
Wisconsin 5 2.16
Ohio State 3 0.92
Purdue 1 0.24
Maryland 2 0.18


The team I want to single out this week is Ohio State. So far this year they've given up less than a point because of their 4th down decision making. And they are the only team to have gone for it multiple times on 4th and 1 in their own territory (in the first 3 quarters). This team is going to be hard enough to beat normally. But if they're making optimal 4th down decisions, it's going to be next to impossible. 

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

3

2.33 1 7

*

*

50-74

17 -0.35 3 4.67

*

*

25-49

0

0

8 3.13 1 -7

1-24

*

* 10 2.1 3 3

Thanks to Wisconsin's fake punt, we finally have a team that went for it on 4th and 1 inside their own 25 yard line. We now have four 4th and 1 attempts that have taken place in the team's own territory. Three of them have ended in touchdowns (in the other, nobody scored before the end of the half). So when I see that there have been 20 punts on 4th and 1, I simply see 20 wasted opportunities to maximize points.

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

8 3.1 1 -7

2-5

19 0.16 12 -0.58 3 -0.33

6-9

18 0.5 10 -0.4 8 3.25

10+

31 0 1 7 16 0.81

Usually, teams should be going for it on 4th and 5 and shorter in the gray zone. We see that teams mostly make the correct decision on 4th and 1, but are more hesitant on the distance 2 through 5. The number of punts in the 2-5 category should not outnumber the number of 4th down attempts!

In the 6-9 yard category, I'm finding it pretty funny that the average next score after a field goal attempt is higher than 3. This is because twice a team has missed the field goal, only to get the ball back and score a touchdown next. Small sample sizes, everybody!

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