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Big Ten 4th Down Calculator: Week 8

Big Ten LogoWe use statistics to arm ourselves with more information. That information allows us to make more informed decisions. And the sooner we can obtain this information, the better.

For example, suppose one of your manufacturing machines starts to malfunction and makes your products out of spec. You don't want to wait until the product reaches customers before you discover this information. Then it's too late to do anything about it. The ideal situation would be to use statistical tools—like a control chart—to discover that your process is out of control as soon as possible, so you can stop production and fix the problem early on. The faster you get that information, the better.

The same idea can be applied to a particular situation in football. Suppose you're losing by 15 points in the 4th quarter and you score a touchdown. You can either kick the extra point and be down by 8 points, or go for two and be down either 7 or 9 points. Almost every coach will kick the extra point, since if you miss the two-point conversion and are losing by 9, you have to score two more times. But if you're down by 8 you can potentially tie the game with one score, if you make a 2-point conversion after scoring a touchdown.

The key word there: potentially.

The problem is that if you're down by 8, you don't really know if you need one or two more scores. I like to think of it as Schrodinger's score: You're simultaneously down by 1 and 2 possessions, but you don't know which one it is until you actually score. Most coaches behave as if they're only down one possession. But if you score at the very end of the game and miss the two-point conversion, it's too late to do anything about it—just like discovering your product is defective after sending it to customers. That's why you should always go for 2 after the first touchdown. It's all about knowing the information as soon as possible. Sure, if you miss the two-point conversion, you have to score two more times. But isn't it better to know that fact when there is still time left in the game, as opposed to the very end? Of course it is. Whether it's football or quality, you don't want to delay the possible detection of bad news. Discover it as soon as possible so you have time to fix the problem!  

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 week's post.

Nebraska 31 - Rutgers 14

At least Rutgers held an opponent to under 48 points for the first time in a month. Silver lining?

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

Nebraska

3 1 3 0 0 0.79
Rutgers 8 2 6 0 2 1.02

Nebraska opened up our bad 4th down decision making on their second possession, when punted on 4th and 1 from midfield. This is a Rutgers defense that has allowed 48 or more points in its last 4 games. Come on, Nebraska! Last week against a much better defense (Michigan State) the Cornhuskers went for it on a 4th and 1 in similar field position (a difference of only 10 yards). They converted and scored a touchdown the very next play. So why play so much more conservatively against this Rutgers defense? I don't get it.

Luckily for Nebraska, Rutgers returned the favor on the very next possession, as they punted on a 4th and 1 from their own 11. They actually had a delay-of-game penalty and ended up punting on 4th and 6, but I'm counting it as a 4th and 1 since their plan was to punt all along. Sure, if you don't make it, Nebraska has great field position. But they're going to get good field position anyway—and your defense is terrible! And it's only 1 yard! And you're 3-6 on the year! Go for it! But my pleas for aggressive decision making fell on deaf ears, and Rutgers boomed a punt away. Sure enough, 5 plays later Nebraska was in the end zone, taking a 14-0 lead.

Rutgers' second disagreement with the model came late in the 3rd quarter. They had a 4th and 4 at their own 31 yard line. The statistics say to punt, but Rutgers went for it in the form of a fake punt. At the time Rutgers, was down 28-14, and the difference in expected points between punting and going for it was only 0.23. So even though it was a "disagreement," the calculator doesn't take any issue with Rutgers decision to be aggressive here. But why wait until such a dire situation? Even if Rutgers converted, they'd only have a win probability of 3.5%. Perhaps they should have tried being more aggressive earlier in the game. Like, I don't know, maybe on a particular 4th and 1 in the first quarter?

The fake punt failed for Rutgers and Nebraska kicked a field goal on the next possession, making the score of 31-14, which would remain so until the final whistle. 

Michigan State 24 - Maryland 7

Easy win for Sparty to keep their playoff hopes alive.

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 7 0 6 0 1 0
Michigan St 7 1 5 1 1 0.02

In the first 3 quarters of their Big Ten conference games, Maryland has had 32 punts, and the 4th down calculator has only disagreed with one of them. Now, this isn't really because of great 4th down decision making by the Terps. It's because their average yards to go on those 32 punts is 10.5 yards. That's right, when Maryland punts it's usually because they lost yards on the previous 3 plays. That's B1G.

Michigan State's disagreement came on a 4th and 6 at the Maryland 14 yard line. The calculator says to kick a field goal, but Michigan State ended up going for it in the form of a fake field goal. The play was a disaster, as the the Spartans lost 6 yards. But the decision really wasn't a bad one, as the difference in expected points between kicking and going for it is basically 0. This is because even if the play failed, Michigan State was still likely to be the next team to score. And this ended up being true, as the next score in the game was a Michigan State touchdown.

Maryland had a punt on 4th and 3 that the calculator would usually disagree with. But in this case there was only a minute and a half left until halftime, and Maryland was at their own 24. With that little time left, even if you convert you're not likely to drive the length of the field and score. And if you fail, Michigan State has such good field position that the time will not matter for them. Plus, the difference in expected points is only 0.07. So Maryland definitely made the correct decision by punting, and I won't count the decision against them. 

The rest of this game was pretty boring from a 4th down decision making standpoint (and honestly, from a football entertainment standpoint too), so we'll move on to the next game.

Ohio State 28 - Illinois 3

Ohio State hasn't lost a Big Ten regular season game since 2011. Impressive.

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

7 4 4 1 2 2.85
Illinois 9 2 5 3 1 0.37

I've been praising Ohio State all season for their great 4th down decision making. They're the only team to have gone for it on 4th and 1 in their own territory multiple times. Oh, and every single one of those attempts has been successful and ended with a touchdown.

But then Saturday happened.

Not once. Not twice. But three times Ohio State punted on 4th and 1! On the day, Buckeye running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.7 yards per rush. But Urban Meyer didn't trust him to get one yard? Considering how aggressive Ohio State has been on 4th and 1 this year, it was very confusing to see their decision making in this game. 

That accounted for 3 of Ohio State's disagreements with the model. As for the 4th, they were actually being too aggressive. On a 4th and 11 from the Illinois 38, Ohio State went for it. Because teams convert on 4th and 11 only 27% of the time, the stats suggest to punt. Now, Ohio State's offense is much better than your average offense, so it's never a bad thing for them to be more aggressive than the numbers suggest—but that makes the previous 4th down decisions more puzzling. 4th and 1? Hey, we better punt here! 4th and 11? Yeah, we got this!

And of course, because it's Ohio State, they converted on the 4th and 11 and went on to score a touchdown. This gave them a 14-3 lead and the game would never get within 1 possession again.

Iowa 40 - Minnesota 35

Iowa has now scored 31 or more points in their last 4 games. The idea that this is a stale and boring offense just isn't true.

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

3 0 3 0 0 0
Iowa 3 2 1 2 0 0.83

Iowa only had one punt in the first three quarters. Of course, that punt came on a 4th and 1 at the Iowa 39 yard line. This is a team that successfully converted a 4th and 1 at their own 25 yard line, and in the 4th quarter of a close game, too! If Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has the confidence to make that decision, going for it on 4th and 1 near midfield should be easy! Also, I feel the need to mention that Hawkeye running back LeShun Daniels Jr. averaged 7.5 yards per rush in this game. There was no reason to punt here for Iowa, and it cost them 0.79 points.

The other Iowa disagreement came when they kicked a field goal on 4th and 5 from the Minnesota 20. The calculator says to go for it, but the difference in expected points is only 0.04. So really there isn't a big issue with Iowa's decision to kick a field goal here.

Minnesota didn't have any disagreements, but I will mention one of their punts. They kicked on 4th and 4 from the Iowa 47. The calculator agreed with the decision, but the difference in expected points is only 0.23 points. And in this game, Minnesota was a double-digit underdog. Considering they were in Iowa territory, I think they should have been more aggressive than the calculator suggests and gone for it. And to make matters worse for the Gophers, the decision to punt backfired. Iowa took the ball and drove 91 yards on the next possession to score the opening 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
Minnesota
(Down by 12)
13:17 3 68 Go for it Punt 1.9% 1.3% (Punt)
Iowa
(Up by 12)
10:49 5 30 FG FG 98.7% 98.8% (FG)
Minnesota
(Down by 12)
9:30 1 61 Go for it Go for it 1.3% 0.8% (Punt)
Minnesota
(Down by 12)
9:30 11 71 Go for it Punt 0.7% 0.6% (Punt)
Iowa
(Up by 12)
6:08 3 72 Punt Punt 98.4% 99.2% (Punt)

Early in the 4th quarter, Minnesota had a very manageable 4th down. Down by 2 scores, they should have been aggressive and gone for it instead of punting. And keep in mind, at this point in the game Iowa had punted exactly once. So by punting, Minnesota was banking on stopping Iowa, then scoring, then stopping Iowa again, then scoring to take the lead, then stopping Iowa a third time to preserve the win. Good luck with that, Gophers.

After the Minnesota punt, it took Iowa exactly 2 plays to reach the point where Minnesota punted from. The Hawkeyes ended up attempting a field goal on 4th and 5. I wish they would have made it, because then we would have had a real-life scenario of the end of game 15-point deficit discussed at the start of this post. But Iowa missed the kick, and Minnesota got the first stop they needed.

But 3 plays later Minnesota found itself with a 4th and 1 in their own territory. Just like the 4th and 3 from the previous drive, the model says the correct decision is to go for it. And that's exactly what they did, gaining 10 yards on the play. However, the Gophers were called for holding, and the 4th and 1 turned into 4th and 11. At this point they were in real trouble no matter what they decided to do. The stats say to go for it, but 11 yards is so hard to convert you can't blame Minnesota too much for deciding to punt here.

But Minnesota was able to force the 2nd Iowa punt of the game. And they quickly scored a touchdown to make it a 5 point game. But then Iowa showed exactly why Minnesota should have been more aggressive earlier in the quarter. Even though the Golden Gophers knew Iowa was just going to run the ball to burn the clock, they couldn't stop them. Iowa ran the ball 8 straight plays, getting two first downs followed by a 51 yard touchdown run. Minnesota was able to score again, but it was too little too late as a failed onside kick attempt ended the game. Essentially, Minnesota passed on trying to convert a 4th and 3 to try and recover an onside kick later in the game. The first has a success rate of about 53% and the latter has a success rate of 19%.

If only coaches knew what playing the percentages actually meant.

Northwestern 21 - Purdue 14

All season, Northwestern has been the worst Big Ten team at 4th down decisions and Purdue has been the best. So there is no way Northwestern did a better job on 4th downs than Purdue, right?

4th Down Decisions in the First 3 Quarters

Team

4th Downs

Number of Disagreements with the 4th down Calculator

Punts

Field Goals

Conversion Attempts

Expected Points Lost

Purdue 8 2 4 1 3 1.31
Northwestern 5 1 4 0 1 0.79

Oh no! Purdue, what happened? It started in the 1st quarter, when the Boilermakers punted on 4th and 2 at the Northwestern 45. Purdue, you lead the country in 4th down attempts! It's 2 yards......in Northwestern territory! And you're a 16 point underdog! Why are you punting here? Why?

The other Purdue disagreement found them being too aggressive. They went for it on 4th and 7 at the Northwestern 23 yard line, when the statistics say to kick. In fact, the difference in expected points is 0.75, so the decision isn't really close. In addition to that, Northwestern has the best pass defense in the Big Ten (in yards/attempt) and Purdue has one of the worst passing offenses. I understand that as a double-digit underdog you should play aggressively. But the gap between kicking and going for it is so big here that Purdue should have attempted a field goal. 

Northwestern punted on a 4th and 1, which at this point seems to be a weekly occurrence for them. But I will finally give Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald a compliment. On a 4th and 1 from the Purdue 29 yard line he correctly went for it instead of kicking a field goal. Good job, Pat! Teams convert on 4th and 1 about 68% of the time and they make 46 yard field goals 60% of the time, so this decision should really be a no-brainer. (Okay, so it was a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nonetheless!)

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
Purdue
(Tie Score)
14:51 3 60 Go for it Punt 28.1% 26.6% (Punt)
Northwestern
(Tie Score)
12:47 11 57 Punt Punt 61.1% 68% (Punt)
Purdue
(Tie Score)
10:50 5 90 Go for it Punt 18.4% 18.2% (Punt)
Purdue
(Down by 7)
4:37 8 73 Go for it Punt 1.5% 0.8% (Punt)

Purdue, the most aggressive 4th down team in the country, picked a poor game in which to be timid. At the start of the 4th quarter, they punted on a 4th and 3 when they should have gone for it. Purdue, this is the perfect time to implement that aggressive 4th down strategy! You've won exactly 2 Big Ten games in the last 3 years. What do you have to lose? But my pleas once again fell on deaf ears, and Purdue punted. The kick went a whole 27 yards and Northwestern went 3 and out on their next possession. So the kick didn't give them much field position, and if they failed on 4th down Northwestern probably would have punted back to them anyway. But if they had converted that 4th and 3? We might be talking about this game as a huge upset. 

By the way, you might be wondering why Purdue has such a small probability to win even though the game was tied. This is because the win probability takes into account the Vegas spread, and Northwestern was a 16 point favorite. So even with a tie score going into the 4th quarter, Northwestern was still more likely to win. All the more reason for Purdue to be aggressive. 

Now after the Northwestern punt, you'll see that Purdue punted on another 4th down when the calculator said to go for it. Although I think Purdue probably made the right choice here. The probabilities are very close, and we already mentioned Northwestern's great pass defense and Purdue's poor pass offense. This probably tips the numbers enough that Purdue was best off by punting. Although the result didn't work out for them, as Northwestern ended up scoring a touchdown. This set up another 4th and long for Purdue deep in their own territory. Suddenly a 4th and 3 near midfield doesn't sound so bad, does it? Teams usually convert 4th and 8 32% of the time, but Purdue's chances were probably less than that. Even so, they would have needed less than a 16% chance of converting to warrant punting. With so little time left, you just can't be sure you're going to get another chance if you kick. And sure enough, after the Purdue punt Northwestern ran out the clock to end the game.

Michigan 48 - Indiana 41

So close Indiana, so close!

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 4 1 3 1 0 0.41
Indiana 8 1 1 4 3 0.07

As a double digit underdog, you're going to have to be aggressive if you want a chance at pulling the upset. And that's exactly what Indiana did. On their opening drive, Indiana went for it on 4th and 2 and the Michigan 44. They failed, and 4 plays later Michigan scored a touchdown. Often a result like this induces coaches to give up on being aggressive on 4th down. Thankfully, that was not the case with Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Two possessions later, Indiana went for it on 4th and 1 at their own 44, and 4th and 2 from the Michigan 43. They converted both times and ended up scoring a field goal on the possession. 

Speaking of field goals, Indiana kicked 4 of them in the first three quarters of this game. Usually, I want Indiana to be more aggressive, since field goals aren't going to win you games given a defense as bad as theirs. However, the 4th down distances were all so long that the field goals were definitely the correct decision.

Of course, things weren't perfect for Indiana's 4th down decision making. They did punt on a 4th and 3 from midfield. The expected points for the difference between kicking and going for it are close to 0, so on the surface of it the decision to punt isn't that bad. But considering Indiana has a great offense and a terrible defense, and the fact that they were heavy underdogs, they should have absolutely gone for it. Luckily for them, the punt set up Michigan's poor 4th down decision.

Michigan's disagreement was punting on 4th and 2. It cost them 0.41 expected points, but the real life results turned out to cost them even more. Indiana drove 61 yards for a touchdown the possession after the Michigan punt.

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
(Up by 2)
13:27 7 44 Punt Punt 45.8% 48.9% (Punt)
Michigan
(Down by 2)
6:30 2 2 Go for it FG 68.1% 59.2% (FG)
Indiana
(Tie Score)
OT 1 1 Go for it Go for it 50% 48.1% (FG)

Clinging to a 2 point lead, Indiana punted on a 4th and 7 in Michigan territory early in the 4th quarter. The calculator says this was the correct decision, although in reality the numbers are probably much closer together. Given how bad Indiana's defense is, it's really tempting to think that Indiana should have gone for it here. But 7 yards is a lot to gain, too. The win probabilities for both are so close together that either decision was fine.

The decision to punt didn't work out for Indiana, as Michigan drove all the way to the Indiana goal line, finding themselves with a 4th and goal at the 2. Conventional wisdom is that you have to kick a field goal here to take the lead. But conventional wisdom doesn't realize how valuable a touchdown is. Michigan would have been much better off going for the touchdown here. And even if they failed, Indiana would start at the 2 yard line. Michigan would be very likely to get the ball back in great field position with another chance to take the lead.

After the Michigan field goal, Indiana drove right down the field and scored a touchdown. The only downside was that they left Michigan almost 3 minutes, and the Wolverines were able to answer with a touchdown of their own to send the game to overtime.

In the first possession of overtime Indiana had a 4th and goal at the 1 yard line. The calculator suggests going for it, and that's exactly what Indiana did. But one quick caveat. I calculated their win probability using data from my previous post on college football overtimes, where my sample size was only 88 games. So because we don't have a very large sample, I wouldn't consider these probabilities written in stone. Even so, they do slightly favor going for it. And we also know that Indiana's defense is really bad, so if they kick the field goal their chances of stopping Michigan are lower than your average team. When you consider that, I believe Indiana made the correct decision to go for it.

The results support the decision as well. Between the first and second overtimes, Michigan ran 3 plays and scored 2 touchdowns. Indiana ended up losing, but had they kicked a field goal, it's likely they would have lost more quickly than they did. By going for it on 4th and goal, they gave themselves the best chance at winning. It just didn't work out.

Summary

Each week, I’ll summarize the times coaches disagreed with the 4th down calculator and the difference in expected points between the coach’s decision and the calculator’s decision. I’ll do this only for the 1st 3 quarters since I’m tracking expected points and not win probability. I also want to track decisions made on 4th and 1-2 yards, and decisions made between midfield and the opponent’s 25 yard line. I call this area the “Gray Zone”. Then we can easily compare the actual outcomes of different decisions in similar situations.

Team Summary

Team Number of Disagreements Total Expected Points Lost
Northwestern 10 7.54
Rutgers 9 4.98
Illinois 11 4.11
Michigan 8 4.05
Minnesota 9 3.81
Ohio State 7 3.77
Penn State 8 3.61
Iowa 6 3.42
Indiana 6 3.37
Nebraska 7 3.36
Michigan St 7 2.27
Wisconsin 5 2.16
Purdue 3 1.55
Maryland 2 0.18

It was a bad weekend for the previously great 4th down decision makers. With their terrible game (from a 4th down decision perspective), Ohio State jumps from 12th to 6th for the most expected points lost. Purdue stays at 13th, but their total expected points lost increased from 0.24 to 1.55! 

Northwestern has a stranglehold on the team whose decisions have cost them the most points. With only two weeks left in the Big Ten season, it seems unlikely that anybody will catch them.  

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

Yards To End Zone

Punts

Average Next Score After Punt

Go for It

Average Next Score after Go for it

Field Goals

Average Next Score After FG

75-90

11

-3.64 1 7

*

*

50-74

31 -0.03 6 4

*

*

25-49

3

-4.67 15 2.07 1 -7

1-24

*

* 11 2.55 4 3

I'm adding 4th and 2 to this table to increase our sample size. Even though the 4th down calculator always suggests going for it on 4th with 1 or 2 yards, punting reigns supreme when teams are in their own territory. It's not working out very well for them, especially when they punt inside their own 25. Teams that have correctly gone for it in their own territory have been handsomely rewarded. In 4 of the instances a team has gone for it, they've scored a touchdown on the same possession. Another team kicked a field goal, and the last two instances saw neither team score before halftime. So not once has going for it on 4th and short in your own territory backfired for a Big Ten team this year. Of course, that doesn't mean that it will never backfire. But so far, this year's data says that in the long run, you'll score more points than you give up by going for it. 

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

9 3.56 1 -7

2-5

21 -0.52 16 -0.69 4 0.5

6-9

18 0.5 10 -0.4 9 2.1

10+

37 0 1 7 19 0.63

Northwestern is still the only team to kick on 4th and 1 between the 25 and 49 yard line. And even if you are in field goal range, you'll see that the number of points actually scored by going for it is 3.56. That's higher than the field goal even if you guarantee that you make it (which you can't). It just continues to show that teams need to always go for it on 4th and 1.

Things aren't quite as neat for 4th and 2 to 4th and 5. For most of the season, teams that punted have actually had a higher average next score than teams that go for it. But those numbers are getting closer and closer each week. With a larger sample, I suspect the going-for-it group will have the higher value, since most of the time that is the optimal decision.

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