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WKU Football: Matt’s Stats — Mike Sanford’s 2018 4th Down Attempts

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Without question, Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford is under fire for a variety of reasons. First, his 2018 record is 1–7, and his overall record is 7–14 after over a year and a half at WKU. This is after taking over a program on the cusp of a New Years Six bowl.

Sanford is an interesting character, a very excitable presence on the sideline. Most head coaches are fairly stoic until they deal with a mistake, or deal with a disagreement from officials. Sanford is very active, running out onto the field two or three times a game to protest a call by officials, running over to the defense to give them a pat on the butt or a high five.

Perhaps this energy makes him an incredible recruiter. Sanford has immediately turned the WKU recruiting situation around from a lucky-to-be-in-the-top-100 recruiting class to bringing in the back-to-back highest classes in WKU history.

Sanford wins most press conferences. He has a good presence, has good thoughts, and is impressive in front of a microphone. He’s good at kissing babies.

However, winning press conferences, schmoozing and simply bringing in good players does not (necessarily) translate to victories.

Perhaps the greatest gripe against Sanford — besides wins and losses and play calling — is Sanford’s questionable at best, dumbfounding at worst, decision making.

In one article, I can’t pick and choose decisions throughout the season without missing an important detail, so let’s take the most blaring issue and run with it. In this version of Matt’s Stats, I am going to dissect each one of the fourth down decisions of 2018. WKU is 2-of-11 on fourth down attempts this year.

My theory is that way less than half of these were necessary. In fact, I can’t remember one that just had to be done. However, let’s see how this plays out. I will break down each situation before and after, what led up to it, what was run, whether it worked, and whether it was a good decision or not.

The Decisions

Aug. 31, at Wisconsin

Ball on the WISC 14, 4th and 6 (WKU down 27–3, 2:45 3Q)

WKU was in the process of a routine road loss between a Power 5 home team and a Group of 5 road team. There was no way in the world WKU could get back in the game kicking field goals. Drew Eckels snaps the ball and throws to a wide open Xavier Lane, who drops the ball diving to his right.

This was really a nice play call, well run route, and Lane was just in the process of establishing himself as a future star defensive back, if you catch my drift. Actually, he was in the process of getting slowly kicked off of the team (although he can still return to the program). There is no way this drop could be blamed on Sanford. He made a good decision and put his team in position to make the play.

Directly after this play, Wisconsin drove 86 yards for their final score of the game. However, this can’t be blamed on Sanford’s decision making. There was zero advantage to kicking the ball here.

Conclusion: Good Decision; Great Play Call; Poor Execution

Aug. 31, at Wisconsin

Ball on WISC 44, 4th and 8 (WKU down 34–3, 9:00 4Q)

Very little in the Wisconsin game left bitter tastes in most Toppers’ mouths and this decision was no exception. I’d be remiss not to mention the trick play that resulted in an interception in the red zone, but that was not on fourth down. On the play in question, WKU was down and trying to make something happen. In most situations, a decision to go for it in no man’s land is perfectly acceptable. In a game you’re getting blasted, it’s even more so.

On this play, Davis Shanley had just been subbed into the game after Drew Eckels was semi-injured and replaced for the rest of the game. Shanley probably made a poor decision and didn’t make the world’s best throw, but Quin Jernighan made an incredible play after the Wisconsin defender fell asleep, catching the ball for a 12 yard gain.

After this 4th down conversion, WKU continued driving down the field. Later in this drive, Shanley nearly scored before being ragdolled around and fumbling on the Wisconsin 1 yard line.

Conclusion: Good Decision; Good Play Call; Great Execution

Sep. 8, vs. Maine

Ball on Maine 42, 4th and 5 (WKU up 21–7, 2:00 2Q)

Here is the first red flag issue for me of 2018 for Mike Sanford. Everyone who’s ever paid attention to anything more than rec league elementary school level football and basketball knows the ends and beginnings of halves are crucial. At this moment, WKU is holding a nice lead to head into the break. The Tops are in Maine territory, but barely. This is not a short yardage scenario. Why go for it? You’re playing an FCS opponent? Going for it on 4th-and-5 is never a high percentage play. Unless the field position makes absolute sense, punt the dad gum ball.

Sanford and the offense run a play to Garland LaFrance in the flat, and he is tackled for a one yard gain to the Maine 41.

There are several issues with this:

  • What is to gain by getting the ball to the 35? You still need another 10+ yards to attempt a field goal.
  • You are up 14. Why not take a delay of game and pooch the ball inside the 10 yard line? Maine probably never would have scored in this scenario and you go into the break up 14. If you get the ball inside the 20, are they really going to be aggressive with two minutes left? They’re going to do what Brohm did and run a draw to see if they gain enough to pursue a score. It probably wouldn’t work, and WKU almost certainly goes into the half up at least two scores.

And hey, it’s not completely ignorant to go for it, although if you’re remotely conservative, you probably punt the ball away.

That being said, IF you go for it, throw the ball downfield, or give yourself a chance to actually make a first down! You’re asking a skinny freshman running back to catch a tough ball and beat a linebacker in a one-on-one scenario outside in space. Yes, if LaFrance breaks the tackle, you look like a genius and maybe go in up 17 or more, but if he doesn’t, you look like a buffoon and Maine has a chance to go score before halftime.

Maine gets the ball with 1:54, goes down and scores and sets up one of the premier meltdowns in WKU football history, losing to Maine 31–28 (more to come from this game) after leading 21–0 in the first quarter.

Conclusion: Questionable to Unfavorable Decision; Horrible Play Call; Below Average Execution

Sep. 8 vs. Maine

Ball on WKU 15, 4th and 1 (21–21, 5:26 3Q)

Yes, this actually happened.

In a tie game, WKU, with no momentum, decides to go for it inside their own 20. I’ll be 100% candid: This absolutely broke my will to fully believe in Mike Sanford’s decision-making.

Why?

The issue with this is incredibly multilayered. First of all, shouldn’t a fourth down attempt serve a tactical advantage? When asked about this decision, Sanford simply said he thought the Tops needed a spark. Okay, wonderful. So the play call was creative and just blew up because of a mistake, right? You faked a punt with a prolific offensive player running it, right? Oh you didn’t do that, either? Ok…You ran play action, right?

No.

After running straight up the middle for less than a yard with Marquez Trigg, WKU sprints to the line and immediately snaps the ball and runs the exact same play. WKU gets absolutely stuffed and Maine takes over inside the red zone.

Oh, and let’s not forget that this is a tie game! Missing this virtually guarantees Maine takes the lead late in the third quarter. Lo and behold, the Tops don’t get it and Maine throws a pass for a touchdown on the next play. WKU would go on to lose 31–28. This decision literally made the difference in this game.

I could go on and on about this decision, but suffice it to say this is the single most ignorant and appalling coaching decision I have ever seen in person. I was absolutely dumbfounded and I frankly believe he lost a huge chunk of the fan base with this one single call.

Conclusion: Piss Poor Decision; Piss Poor Play Call; Piss Poor Execution

Sep. 15 at Louisville

Ball on LOU 45, 4th and 14 (WKU down 20–17, 2:10 4Q)

This was a true moment of desperation. WKU had already burned two timeouts, so barring bizarre circumstances, WKU was only going to get the ball with a few seconds if the Tops didn’t find a way to convert in desperation.

In terms of the play, WKU had options, but the Toppers needed a miracle to make it happen, and ultimately, Shanley was unable to connect with Lucky Jackson.

Conclusion: Excellent and Only Reasonable Decision; Decent Play Call; Decent Execution

Sep. 22 at Ball State

Ball on WKU 41, 4th and 8 (WKU up 14–13, 13:00 4Q)

Up 14–13 in the fourth, WKU fakes a punt and it actually works! Rex Henderson gets 11 yards. Great.

Again, what is the benefit of getting the first down? Frankly, the first down changes nothing at all and after all was said and done, punter Alex Rinella was unable to get the football inside of the 30 yard line.

This decision did not receive heat but imagine if it hadn’t worked in a tight game WKU was leading. Missing this would have put Ball State 15 yards from taking the lead on a field goal attempt.

Again, Sanford displays his ability for bizarre decisions and unnecessary risks. Just because the play works doesn’t mean the decision was incredible. In this case, Sanford opened up the possibility for Ball State to gain significant momentum, which they did anyway. WKU moved another 12 yards before stalling a few plays later. On the next drive, Ball State took its final lead at 20–14.

Conclusion: Horrible Decision; Excellent Play Call; Excellent Execution

Sep. 29 vs. Marshall

Ball on MAR 49, 4th and 1 (WKU down 7–3, 11:06 2Q)

This is now three times within the first five games we’re questioning the purpose of a fourth down decision, let alone the play call.

Early in the game, WKU decides to go for it at midfield. Western rushes Gino Appleberry, a true freshman. Sanford runs a misdirection play which fools no one and Appleberry is stuffed for a loss of a yard. Yes, this was an excellent play by the linebacker, but frankly, running a misdirection into the teeth of the defense is what Sanford does. When he overloads the formation in one direction, expect it to go the opposite. That’s what happened here and Appleberry got creamed on this play.

This decision did not end up costing the Tops, but only because the defense bailed them out on the next play with an interception. Otherwise, this could have been another hallmark decision in the #FireSanford campaign.

Conclusion: Awful Decision; Abysmal Play Call; Bad Execution

Sep. 29 vs. Marshall

Ball on MAR 30, 4th and 8 (WKU down 7–3, 9:28 2Q

Ahh, No Man’s Land. Honestly, 4th-and-long in an awkward place on the field is frustrating. Long field goals have already scarred the 2018 Tops from immediately jumping on that opportunity. Eight yards is just long enough to pretty much guarantee a pass. WKU ended up attempting a pass to Quin Jernighan.

Jernighan is one of the more reliable receivers for the Tops, so I really have no major issue with this decision, and a punt is not incredibly beneficial.

Conclusion: Good Decision; Decent Play Call; Below Average Execution

Oct. 13 at Charlotte

Ball on WKU 32, 4th and 3 (WKU down 33–7, 12:16 4Q)

This attempt was in garbage time and desperation time for the Toppers. The timing of this was such that WKU still held out hope of coming back if they could get on the board quickly. There really was not much to complain of in this situation, but once again, WKU goes for it on fourth down and is unable to convert on a pass attempt to Lucky Jackson.

There is nothing related to this fourth down decision to really be upset about, except for the fact this was in the middle of the Charlotte debacle.

Conclusion: Good Decision; Decent Play Call; Decent Execution

Oct. 20 vs. ODU

Ball on ODU 19, 4th and 2 (7–7, 3:21 1Q)

Here comes the next head scratcher. Not only is WKU in field goal range and looking back on a game lost by a field goal is frustrating, but a long two yards is required and, once again, what is the purpose of going for it? The opportunity cost of going for it is great enough that you should just try to take the lead. The Toppers are in field goal range and a 36 yard field goal would break an early tie. Granted, this game was increasingly cold and windy, but a shot to take a lead within 40 yards should be a high percentage play for you. If you miss it, ODU gets the ball at the 20. Given your inability to score touchdowns, this is a win for you either way.

In addition to what should be a fairly routine field goal attempt decision, WKU once again rushes to the line and Old Dominion takes a quick timeout. WKU comes out in the exact formation they showed before the timeout and runs Appleberry up the gut. Of course, he is stopped, and again, the Hilltoppers can directly point to points lost on fourth down decisions in yet another three point loss.

Conclusion: Awful Decision; Hideous Play Call; Lackadaisical execution

Oct. 27 vs. FIU

Ball on FIU 25, 4th and 11 (0–0, 11:36 1Q)

Although this is a cute decision and a nice play design, ultimately you fire one of your bullets you’ve had, by your own admission, since before the season began, and you don’t make it. To Sanford’s credit, this fake punt had at least two receivers open and potentially even a third. The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and WKU comes up short. Truly unfortunate circumstance, but again, you’re asking for it and you’re risking the opponent gaining unnecessary momentum.

First, Ryan Nuss came in and Rinella was kicking in pre-game. My theory, without any real knowledge, is Nuss came in on this long field goal specifically to run the fake. Ryan Nuss is not kicking a long field goal for the Tops ever again if Alex Rinella is healthy. Nuss was a quarterback in high school, so he has a decent arm to use for fakes. Predictable, and I was on high alert simply because the story didn’t make sense. Surely the defense should have picked up on that, as well.

Ultimately, what happens right after this drive? FIU uses the momentum from this stop to go 16 plays, 75 yards and takes 9:06 off of the game clock. Not only does WKU not put in the kicker that should be in and actually attempting it, they allow FIU to seize control of the football game, and the Golden Panthers dominated from this point forward. WKU never recovered from missing this attempt.

Conclusion: Questionable Decision; Excellent Play Call; Decent Execution

Quick Stats Review:

  • 2/11 on fourth down conversion attempts in 2018
  • 5/11 were good decisions
  • 4/11 are unquestionably horrible choices
  • Three were actually necessary, pertinent fourth down attempts.
  • 17 tangible points were lost due to these decisions
  • 5/11 attempts were in the first half

As I predicted, less than half of these decisions were necessary.

Conclusion: Sanford’s Fourth Down Decisions Have Been Horrible Thus Far in 2018

Without question, Sanford has made some insane calls this season, but usually, the crazy coaches that keep their jobs still have an offensive and defensive identity. Not only has WKU made decisions that were silly but those crazy decisions ultimately have cost the Tops.

Remember, this article is only covering 11 decisions that have impacted the 2018 football season so far. Plenty of other issues have arrived, but this was a way to make the point, give each situation some exposure and not bring in ambiguity picking out certain kinds of plays that didn’t work.

The numbers may not tell the full truth, but they always give a general idea of what happened. Without a doubt, Mike Sanford has struggled, and he has dug himself a hole difficult to burrow out of. However, he has not lost his job. He still has opportunity to leave a decent taste in most mouths by finding a way to win a few more games in 2018.

Some will never give him a chance, some will always and most will fall somewhere in the middle. He has burned enough ropes that his only solution is to win some games immediately.

Regardless, the ball is in Sanford’s court at this point. He must produce at the end of 2018, or whether you, Joe Fan or Bartholomew Admin III, like it or not, he’s going to have difficulty keeping his job heading into 2019.

Friday would be a great start.

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