Rolling the Dice on 4th Down

  • By John Antonik
  • |
  • November 14, 2012 04:30 PM
  • |
Just about every single study that has ever been done on whether or not a football coach should go for it on fourth down says coaches should do it more frequently than they are.

But how much more is a point of contention.

The stat guys like Brian Burke, founder of AdavanceNFLStats.com, says statistical analysis indicates that going for it on fourth down more frequently pays off in the long run.

Many of the coaches that are getting paid to stick around for the long run aren’t so sure.

Can you guess which college team has gone for it on fourth down the fewest times this year? That would be Kansas State, which, by the way, is No. 1 in the BCS rankings this week. The old-school Wildcats and their definitely old-school coach Bill Snyder have gone for it just twice on fourth down this season, making both of their tries.

Oregon’s new-school coach Chip Kelly, who leads the nation’s No. 2-ranked team in this week’s BCS standings, falls on the other side of the spectrum. He has gone for it 19 times on fourth down (making 14) so far this season.

So, which approach is right?

Of course that depends upon a lot of factors: what type of offense a team is running, the success of the offense, the distance of the fourth down try, where it is on the football field, the quality of the defense it is facing, the quality of its own defense … so on and so forth (you might even add length and term of a coach’s contract to those list of factors as well).

But a quick check of this week's NCAA stats reveals that most of the successful teams in college football still eschew going for it on fourth down. Seven of the Top 10 teams in this week’s BCS rankings have gone for it on fourth down less than 10 times so far this year. In addition to K-State’s two fourth down tries, 10th-ranked Florida State has gone for it three times, third-ranked Notre Dame, fifth-rated Georgia and seventh-ranked LSU just five times, and sixth-rated Florida only six times.

On Oregon’s side of the fence are South Carolina, which has gone for it on fourth down 13 times this year, and Texas A&M, which has gone for it 10 times.

As for West Virginia, the Mountaineers are clearly in Oregon’s camp. In last week’s loss at Oklahoma State, WVU went for it on fourth down seven times, making four.

“It is our job offensively to score,” said Coach Dana Holgorsen. “It is our job to keep going forward. If you look at all seven of them, there is only one of them that I questioned after the game and that was the one in the fourth quarter when we were backed up to our 35-40 (the 39 yard line), or somewhere in there.

“Looking back at it, I kind of questioned that one a little bit, but I think at that point, we were down 14, they had just had an 80-yard scoring drive, and we made a decision to go for it,” Holgorsen said. “Other than that - the other six - I would do it again.”

For the season, WVU has gone for it on fourth down 29 times, which is tied with Louisiana-Monroe for the fourth-most in college football this year.

Army and Air Force, two option teams, are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in that category at 39 and 36 respectively, while Penn State sits at third with 31 fourth down attempts.

Since 1997, when modern stat programs began tracking fourth down attempts (before that it was simply considered a specialty stat), the most fourth down tries by a Mountaineer team was 25 during the 2001 and 2002 seasons under Rich Rodriguez.

Yet in ensuing years, Rodriguez went for it on fourth down less frequently as his teams improved, going for it 16 times in 2003, 14 times in 2005 and only nine times in 2006. During his final season at WVVU in 2007, Rodriguez went for it on fourth down 15 times.

Bill Stewart’s three seasons at West Virginia saw him go for it on fourth down 13 times in 2008, 12 times in 2009 and 15 times in 2010.

Holgorsen has already gone for it on fourth down 47 times so far in 22 games as West Virginia’s head coach, yet he concedes that he would like for that number to be reduced in the future.

“I don’t want to get into a habit of going for it on fourth down five-to-seven times a game,” Holgorsen said. “If you look back at the games, there have been a couple of times this year that we have done that, but over the course of the 20-some games since I have been here, that hasn’t been the norm and I don’t expect it to be.

“But it is all situational – the situations dictate that.”

And the situations this year have forced Holgorsen to roll the dice, sometimes even doing so on his side of the football field.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.

Women's Soccer - 08/18/17
No. 1 WVU Opens with Big Win
Women's Soccer - 08/19/17
Promotional Slate Unveiled
Volleyball - 08/18/17
2017 Volleyball Season Outlook