Math Wednesday: Fourth Down Gambles

By Chad Peltier on April 24, 2013 at 6:30p

Going for it on fourth down necessarily entails some degree of risk acceptance by the head coach. 

Every picture of Braxton on Google Images has an opponent eating turf. Braxton wasn't too shabby in converting fourth downs

Fourth down conversions should be overwhelmingly attempted by teams that are (1) trailing and (2) in the fourth quarter. While there are certainly serial risk takers out there (interestingly, air raid teams are among the most willing to go for it), coaches often attempt fourth down conversions because their team is behind and there is a chance to win, or because there is no hope and, frankly, why not?

Stevieyo's study of 4th down conversions found that:

64 of the 87 attempts by teams trailing by more than one score above (dark red) came from teams that were, in fact, down by more than two scores, meaning my original theory was incorrect. The only justification I have to explain the numbers is that these teams are already down by such insurmountable amounts that even a failed pass attempt, and the subsequent field position of their opponent, is no longer a sufficient disincentive.

So what were Urban Meyer's 2012 Buckeyes like on fourth down? Was the points deficit ever so large that he might have well believed the Buckeyes would lose? If so, why not just sling the ball downfield or have Braxton try to make some magic on fourth? 

In short, no. Meyer was in fact the best in the country at risk management on fourth downs. 

Through 12 games, the Buckeyes attempted nine fourth down conversions, gaining a new set of downs on seven of those plays (77.8%). This ties Clemson for the best fourth down conversion percentage in the country.

While part of this may be explained by good judgment on when to punt versus attempt the conversion, a lot simply has to do with the relatively few fourth quarter deficits the Buckeyes faced.

Beyond Meyer's judgment and the Buckeyes' few overall attempts, the Buckeyes were undeniably proficient at converting fourth downs. Let's find out why. 

The following chart displays the game circumstances of the conversion attempt (quarter, time left, and who was ahead), whether the attempt was a success, field position, yards to go, and a basic run/pass breakdown of the play. 

Game Success? Field Position Yards to go Play
Miami 3Q 6:43, OSU +25 Yes Miami 39 3 (5) Guiton rush + personal foul 
UCF 1Q 8:00, OSU +7 No OSU 47 1 (0) Braxton rush 
UCF 2Q 15:00, OSU +4 Yes OSU 50 1 (6)  Hyde rush
Neb 1Q 1:50, OSU -7 No OSU 25 7 (6) Buchanan fake punt rush
Neb 2Q 1:27, OSU +4 Yes, TD NEB 31 2 (31) Braxton rush 
Indiana 2Q 14:46, OSU -4 Yes IND 47 1 (4)  Hyde rush 
Purdue 1Q 9:03, OSU -6 Yes PUR 45 1 (20) Hyde rush
Purdue 4Q 6:03, OSU -8 Yes OSU 28 2 (9) Hyde rush
Illinois 3Q 12:31, OSU+25 Yes Ill 21 1 (2) Hyde rush

What is quickly apparent is that Meyer did not typically call for conversion attempts because the game was on the line. The second Hyde rush during the Purdue game was the only attempt during a fourth quarter, and it was also the largest deficit the Buckeyes faced (down eight). 

Five of nine attempts were actually when the Buckeyes were leading, contrary to the "late game heroics" hypothesis. Further, six of those nine were during the first or second quarters. Meyer didn't irrationally attempt fourth down conversions, but did so when there was relatively little to lose. 

Nice to see Nebraska getting bowled overHyde was incredible on fourth down

The exceptions to that rule, however, were the attempts that took place deep on the OSU side of the field. It takes great trust in your players to call for a fake punt or run up the middle on your own 25 or 28, respectively. Typically, however, Ohio State went for it on the field position you would expect – on the opponent's 45 or better. Statistically, economist Dr. David Romer found that: 

Teams should try for a touchdown far more often than they actually do, he found. “This pushes for more high-stakes plays,” Romer said in a recent telephone interview, suggesting that N.F.L. coaches might also want to attempt onside kicks more frequently and call for more deep passing routes. “The football analytics push you to a more aggressive, exciting game.”

Besides Meyer's two calls deep in the Buckeyes' own territory, the Buckeyes' fourth down attempts were fairly low risk. However, though most attempts weren't high stakes, Meyer called a second fourth down attempt both times a previous attempt failed earlier in a game. In both the UCF and Nebraska games, Meyer called for a first quarter try that failed. In both circumstances, he then called for a second attempt as soon as he got the opportunity in the second quarter. 

Of course, it's fairly easy to mitigate risk when Carlos Hyde has a perfect record of gaining the first on fourth down. Five Hyde rushes led to five first downs, with Carlos almost always picking up far more than the required one or two yards. Hyde is not simply a short-yardage, pound-it-up-the-middle back, but a guy that can make those eight or nine guys loading the box look silly. 

Looking to next year, here's to hoping Meyer trusts the passing game enough to get even one pass attempt on fourth down. 


Comments Show All Comments

BuckeyeInOrlando's picture

See... with this offense, who needs punters?

OSUStu's picture

My own analysis tells me that we should "Holy Buckeye" it more often.

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.  ~ Bruce Lee

Baroclinicity's picture

I can't wait to watch Hyde run the ball this year. Defenses better wear extra padding.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

4thandinches's picture

This is my kind of post! 
I forget who it was, but there is a coach out there who goes for it on every fourth down that is in the opponents territory but not close enough for a field goal. I like that idea. Nothing infuriates me more than punting on the opponents side of the field. 

I wasn't born a Buckeye but I became one as fast as I could. 

Buckeye in Illini country's picture

Teams should punt less often and go for two more often (especially for high scoring offenses, where the risk of failing on a two-point conversion is mitigated by a later attempt).

Columbus to Pasadena: 35 hours.  "We're on a road trip through the desert looking for strippers and cocaine... and Rose Bowl wins!"

ziplock007's picture

When you win 7 games by a TD or less, it's hard to say they were dominating their opponents.  Only three of the 4th down tries were in one of the 7 close games, so the other 6 tries were obviously not much of a risk.
It's still hard to believe, as raw as they looked on offense they led the B1G in scoring.  While they had a weaker than usual strength of schedule, they showed lots of signs they were only one year removed from the 2011 Fickell/Bollman offensive crap year.

It's scary to ponder the offense's potential.  NEVER would we have gone worryfree into a Jim Tressel season without a dedicated punter.

EvanstonBuckeye's picture

First of all, Football Study Hall!?! My wife is already pissed...
Secondly, I'd be interested to see if his data shows a jump in fourth down attempts overall (didn't see it in article, but admittedly I skimmed) as I foresee more and more teams going ala Oregon and just trying to gut you fast and furious. I thought our approach was perfect last year and, frankly, am not a huge fan of just winging in to show what big balls we have. That said, I imagine we'll be camped in enemy territory a lot this fall and can see us going for the kill if the situation presents itself.

Hovenaut's picture

I miss too many film sessions.

Fortunately, I have such top notch data analysis at the ready.

Good stuff Chad, exactly the thing to (almost) get me through the offseason.

pjtobin's picture

How many times did we punt last year? I know someone on here already knows..... As before mentioned I too would love to see no punts and going for two. I understand that we will have to from time to time. Yet a guy can dream. Right?

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

45has2's picture

Pulaski Academy in Arkansas hasn't punted since 2007. Their kickoffs are always onside and they have several variations including fake kickers. The stats bear it out. All they do is win. I believe either the coach at SDSU or Fresno State said he would like to try this style but is afraid the fans would lynch him.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

4thandinches's picture

If the stats show that 'all they do is win,' makes you wonder just exactly how important is field position? 

I wasn't born a Buckeye but I became one as fast as I could. 

IBleedSandG's picture

With the type of offense we run and offensive talent we have, I think we should go for it on 4th every time we pass midfield and need less than 10 yards.


CCatanzaro's picture

I went for two every time on Madden 64.  I also rushed for a thousand yards in a game with Barry Sanders once, nbd.

Dairy-fed intellect and pure, unhinged sass.


BrooklynBuckeye's picture

I don't wanna rain on the parade, but there was a game (maybe the Miami game) where Hyde was stopped on the goal line on the last play of the half, which was essentially going for it on fourth down. So, while El Guapo was undefeated on fourth down, there was one time he was stopped on an all-or-nothing short-yardage situation. I think this play should be shown to him and the offensive line endlessly before next season. KEEP 'EM HUNGRY!