A Northwstern Fan’s Plea: On Fourth Down, Go For It

Be not afraid. Go for it.

1.)As an alumnus of Northwestern University, cheering for our beloved football Wildcats whenever they play a true titan is always an act of faith. Such is the case when the Wildcats face the Buckeyes of Ohio State — my hometown team, and one of the greatest (perhaps THE greatest) team in the history of college football. I always boast that NU will win the game during the week beforehand, knowing all the while that it will almost never happen. Northwestern last won in 2004, and before that in 1971. To be sure, the teams do not play each other every year like they used to. Even so, it is abundantly clear that OSU fields the better team year-after-year.

And so, watching yesterday’s OSU — Northwestern game was an exercise in psychological tension.¹ I started the day by posting footage of Northwestern’s 2004 victory over OSU to Facebook, needlessly trolling my friends and loved ones. Meanwhile, as the day advanced I grew worried that NU would lose by at least 50 points.

In the end NU did lose the game, but only by 4 points (24–20). This was not a case of one-sided domination but rather a hard-fought affair. OSU deserved to win, because at the end of the game Northwestern played not to lose rather than as a team that believed it could win.

A 50 point blowout would have been easier to take.

I’ll explain what I mean in part 3, when I get back to the crucial plays of this game. To set the context, though, it’s necessary to defend the much-maligned strategy of going for it on fourth down.

2.) Football requires teams to advance at least 10 yards down the field within no more than 4 plays (“downs”). So, moving 10 yards in 4 downs requires an average forward progress of at least 2.5 yards (7.5 feet) per down. If the offensive team “goes for it” on 4th down — ie, uses their final play to advance the minimum 10 yards — and fails, their opponent then “takes over on downs” by setting up shop exactly where the other team left off.

Enter the punt. Rather than going for it on 4th down, almost all teams will punt across the field in order to give their opponent worse “field position.” The calculus is that the risk is just too great — losing the ball on downs puts your opponent in the driver’s seat, and so it’s best to give the ball away and forfeit your own chance to score.

Or as I see it, to play not to lose rather than playing to win.

Sometimes a punt does make sense, but many times it does not. Don’t take my word for it, the stats bear the claim out (see chart below).

Go for it!

We have now known for almost a decade that going for it is actually the wiser strategy much of the time. The case is so clear that Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics has proclaimed: “the evidence points to a more aggressive attack on 4th down.”

And yet, football — perhaps especially in the NFL, but really at all levels — remains fixated on the notion that the punt is almost always the wisest strategy. At one time in my life I was a pro-punt enthusiast myself; it was just the way things had always been done. My views started to change when learning about Kevin Kelley, a high school coach in Arkansas who almost always goes for it on 4th down and is quite successful to boot. In a 2013 interview on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Kelley proclaimed, “We live in a brainwashed society!”

One consequence of this, to Kelley, is never going for it on 4th down. I laughed at his fervor, because after all we are only talking about football (a sport which causes irreversible brain injuries and will some day be banned). But Kelley’s point, about the absolute refusal to examine set assumptions even when they might be wrong, has wide applicability to our understanding of human nature. It’s important even if you don’t give two hoots about football.

But for those of us who do care about football, what does this long digression have to do with the OSU vs. Northwestern game played in Columbus, Ohio on October 29, 2016?

3.)Here’s what, in the words of the Daily Northwestern:

“With under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and a seven-point deficit facing the Cats, [Northwestern Head Coach Pat] Fitzgerald elected to kick a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 15-yard line rather than leave the offense on the field. Fitzgerald’s decision was a break from an otherwise aggressive game plan which saw NU convert on both of its fourth-down attempts earlier in the game.” (emphasis mine)

To elaborate: at two points in the game yesterday, Northwestern reached a point when the “safe thing” would have been to: take a field goal rather than going for it on 4th down; and punting the ball back to OSU rather than going for it on 4th down. In the first instance Northwestern was close to scoring a touchdown, so a field goal (3 points rather than the touchdown’s 6) had a high probability of success. In the second instance Northwestern was at mid-field. A punt would have placed OSU deeply in its own territory — assuming the punt was kicked cleanly and strongly and not blocked.

On both occasions Northwestern defied conventional wisdom and went for it on fourth down. Both decisions worked out well. Indeed, Northwestern scored touchdowns on both of those drives — or 14 points in all including the touchdown and point after attempts. The “safe route” of a field goal plus punt (which the TV announcers were passionately espousing, proving Kevin Kelley’s point about brainwashing) would have most likely yielded 3 points.

I don’t know about you, but where I’m from 14 points is better than 3. And to those who say, “that’s an outlier!,” I kindly refer you to the chart and discussion in Part 2 above.

Fast forward to the end of the game. OSU is up 24–17. Northwestern has the ball, and (obviously) needs to score 7 points to tie. In other words, Northwestern needs a touchdown. The Cats are marching down the field at first, but OSU’s defense stiffens up near the end zone. The Cats get within ten yards of the goal line, meaning the only way to score a first down is to score a touchdown. OSU protects the house, as they should. The first three plays actually go backwards, to the 15 yard line, and now Northwestern is at 4th and goal.

The TV announcers proclaim, “take the field goal and trust your defense to get the ball back.” (This is the same defense, mind you, that had just allowed OSU to score the go-ahead touchdown with ease). And Northwestern heeds the call of mindless tradition and intellectual inertia, kicking a field goal that made the score 24–20.

That’s right — Northwestern still needed to score a touchdown to make any difference, just like they did before successfully kicking the field goal.

There was another option. Northwestern could have tried for a touchdown one last time. Of course, yes, NU might not have scored. But they would have been no worse off for the trying, whereas a successful effort would have yielded a tie that probably forced overtime.

Instead, after the NU field goal OSU milked the clock and put the game out of reach. Which is exactly what anyone who has ever watched football could have predicted would happen.

Northwestern should have gone for it.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I am aware of the farcical nature of caring so much about a game that involves marching back and forth across a field gladiator style while manipulating an oddly shaped ball. But hopefully this post has interest to non-sports fans too.