Creating more big plays with an aggressive 4th down philosophy

Two aging raconteurs are seated at a table in a local restaurant. One is sipping a Westbrook IPA while checking his smartphone. The other looks up from a copy of Street & Smith’s college football annual, drains his bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and speaks:

“What are you reading now, Beemo? I swear you’re glued to that thing, gotta look up and smell the roses once in a while.”

“There are no roses around here. Besides, I was just checking to see if anything was happening. That Sports Arsenal dude just posted again.”

His companion snorts. “That dork? What, more statistics? Somebody needs to tell him football is about HITTING people and makin’ them stay hit.”

Beemo takes another sip from his glass. “I know, J.B., I know. He’s gotta get his head outta these numbers. They don’t mean nothing. Still, sometimes it’s kind of interesting. Did you know-“

J.B. is having none of it. “Forget that nonsense. You can do anything with stats. Bobby Knight once said that these goofs use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than elimination.”

“You mean illumination,” Beemo corrects mildly.

“I meant what I said, whatever that was. Anyways, has anybody called in with a practice report? I heard through the grapevine that the backup QB looks good.”

“Haven’t heard anything from practice other than the official reports and Hartsell’s stories. Kinda quiet. Nobody ever seems to have any juicy info this time of year.”

“It’s frustrating,” grumbles J.B. “I like those videos they put out on the Twitter, but that’s not telling me who’s gonna be on the two-deep for the opener.”

Beemo glances up from a menu and sighs. “Nobody in our crew ever seems to be at practice.”

After looking at his empty bottle, J.B. scowls, and then signals the waiter. “You’d think Fast Willie would let us know what’s up once in a while. Guess he’s too busy with his kids. Don’t know why, they’ll always be around.”

“That’s why I’m reading this Sports Arsenal stuff. It’s not much, though.”

J.B. nods his head, a sad look on his face. “Yeah. So what’s he going on about now?”

In August of 2017, SBNation college football statistics guru Bill Connelly wrote about how he had changed his mind about big plays, at least in terms of their essential genesis within a football game (my phrasing, not his). It was a very instructive dissection of something that is more random than has often been assumed.

Now, big plays are obviously very important. Connelly opined that “big plays are probably the single most important factor to winning football games”, and it is hard to argue with that notion. I happen to agree with it myself.

Connelly also noted that while long drives could be demoralizing, a defense that prevented big plays while allowing smaller gains could succeed because of the difficulty in maintaining a long drive without making a mistake.

However, he now has a slightly different perspective, one which may or may not seem intuitive:

…[S]uccess rate changes pretty dramatically based on down and distance. Aside from third-and-1, though, big play rates barely change at all…

…The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.

…Efficiency is everything in [college football]. Explosiveness is too random to rely on without efficiency.

I’ve bolded and italicized the key sentence.

Let’s think about this from The Citadel’s point of view.

Staying on the field hasn’t been a problem for the Bulldogs’ offense over the last couple of seasons. In 2016, The Citadel finished second nationally in FCS in time of possession; last season, the Bulldogs were the national leader in the category.

Offensive efficiency, though, was generally lacking in 2017. A quick glance at The Citadel’s third-down conversion rate in SoCon play (38.7%, after being at or above 50% the previous two seasons) tells a less-than-excellent story.

The advanced stats do so as well. After a Success Rate of 45.4% in 2016 league action, The Citadel slipped to a 39.0% rate last year. While FCS numbers are not readily available for Success Rate, 39.0% would be slightly below average in FBS (South Carolina, the median FBS team in the category, had an offensive Success Rate of 41.8% last year).

Holding the ball has its advantages, of course. It tends to tire out the opposing defense, and keeps the Bulldogs’ D relatively fresh. Also, if the defense isn’t on the field, it can’t give up points.

That said, The Citadel has to do more on offense than simply maintain possession. It has to score points. Most of the Bulldogs’ problems in that area last season can be traced to abysmal Red Zone offense, but that in itself is a product of inefficiency.

The Citadel simply must produce more successful plays. If it does so, the chances of creating more “big plays” will increase.

They won’t increase with a predictable progression. As noted, big plays appear to be largely random. There will inevitably be more of them, however — and the more big plays The Citadel has on offense, the more likely the Bulldogs will have a successful 2018 campaign.

How can The Citadel increase its percentage of successful offensive plays? First, let’s define what constitutes a successful play (besides a touchdown):

  • A play that results in a first down
  • A play that increases the chances of picking up a first down on the next play

That’s basically it.

Essentially, the Bulldogs want to move the chains. Keeping the chains moving means more plays, which means more chances for successful plays, which means more chances that one of those successful plays will turn into a big play.

First downs are successful plays, so the more of them, the better. Earlier, I referenced third down conversion rate. Success on third down matters.

However, it’s also possible to pick up the necessary yardage to keep a drive alive on first down, and on second down…and on fourth down.

I believe fourth down is underutilized in college football. Too many times, a team punts when going for it is the proper call.

It goes deeper than that, though. The best way to approach most offensive possessions, especially those that begin less than 70 yards from the end zone, is to assume that the offense is already in “four-down territory”.

Doing so means a team can be more creative with offensive playcalling. For a team like The Citadel, that can really open up the playbook.

Last year, 44.4% of The Citadel’s pass plays came on “passing downs” — in other words, in down-and-distance situations in which the opponent could anticipate a potential throw. The Bulldogs only had a Success Rate of 18.2% when throwing on passing downs (as I noted in my “advanced stats” post from last month).

I don’t think The Citadel necessarily needs to throw more often in its triple option offense; 8 to 12 pass plays per game strikes me as a fairly reasonable range. However, the Bulldogs have to make those pass plays count.

One way to do that is to have a higher percentage of The Citadel’s pass plays occur on “standard downs”, i.e. when the opponent is less likely to be thinking about a potential throw.

By incorporating a more aggressive “go for it” plan of attack, The Citadel could throw more often on those standard downs — on first down, for example, or on 2nd-and-medium plays between the 40s, or even on 3rd-and-short inside the 50-yard line.

It is easier to risk a throw on 2nd-and-5 from your own 47-yard line if you know that, even if it is incomplete, you still have two potential plays to pick up the first down, rather than just one.

Also, surprising a defense with a pass is a great way to create a big play.

If you’re a fan, I bet you’ve watched a lot of games where this scenario happens: the team you’re rooting for is on defense, and the opponent comes up short on third down. It’s 4th-and-1 around midfield, and they line up to punt — and you think to yourself, “Phew. Let them punt. Glad they didn’t go for it.”

I know I have.

Well, I would like The Citadel to be on the other side of that situation, and then flip it. My preference would be for the opposing team’s players (and fans) to think they’ve made a stop on third down, only to see the Bulldogs’ offense stay on the field. As a collective, the response from the opponents may often be “Uh-oh”.

Now, this might take some preseason psychological preparation, not just for the offense, but for the Bulldogs’ D. Every now and then, The Citadel won’t pick up the first down, and the defense will have to go out and defend a shorter field. It has to be ready for that, and accept it as a challenge.

Clearly, going for it on more 4th down tries is not a new concept. It is just one that has not been employed too often, or effectively. However, some coaches seem to be catching up. Advanced statistical analysis in college football has already made an impact.

Tulane head coach Willie Fritz is a solid example of this. Fritz is a very good coach, but he wants to be an even better one, as this AP article from last year suggests:

Fritz was head coach at Georgia Southern when the Eagles took a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter of their 2014 opener against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack rallied to win 24-23 after Fritz made a fourth-down decision — a gut call he is still kicking himself about.

Fritz is no longer interested in following his gut.

“That may be the hot dog I had before the game,” Fritz said. “I want facts and numbers.”

He is now getting those facts and numbers from a firm specializing in statistical analysis for college football, one that has over 50 Division I clients (including several FCS schools, with about half of the Ivy and Patriot League programs on board). Fourth down situations are just a small part of the analytical services on offer, but that part of the game is certainly a major focus (as this 2016 company newsletter attests).

At least two “pure” triple option teams, Georgia Southern and Army, are or have been clients.

Before I get into 4th-down go-for-it specifics, one thing should be noted.

Generally speaking, in the first three quarters of a football game, a coach should make decisions that maximize his team’s total points scored. In the fourth quarter, however, a coach should instead maximize his team’s win probability, which is a distinct difference.

In other words, a team’s standard 4th-down chart changes as the end of the game draws closer, and the number of possessions shrink. The coach has to take into consideration the time and score of game, the number of potential drives remaining, and sometimes even whether or not his team is an underdog.

For a program like The Citadel, which generally has lower-possession games, it is possible that the win probability cutoff point shouldn’t be the beginning of the fourth quarter, but rather the 5:00 mark of the third quarter. Even that is arbitrary, of course.

When faced with a fourth down, in what down-and-distance situations should The Citadel go for a first down?

If you are a college football fan, you’ve probably seen a 4th-down “when to go” chart somewhere on the internet. Maybe more than one.

However, every program is different. What is the right call for one may not be for another.

That’s why I decided to create a 4th-down chart specifically for The Citadel. The chart is based on certain statistics compiled by the Bulldogs over the last two seasons in SoCon play.

Some of the components included are:

  • 3rd down and 4th down conversion rates for each additional yard to gain (for example, in the last two years The Citadel has had a 78.7% success rate on 3rd/4th and 1; 62.5% on 3rd/4th and 2; 53.3% on 3rd/4th and 3, etc.)
  • Net punting for the Bulldogs in 2016/17 (in order to determine where the other team would likely get the ball if The Citadel punted)
  • Expected points for each yard line on the field (based on a chart from Bill Connelly’s book, Study Hall)

Here it is, in all its glory:

4th down decision chart

A few explanations:

– There are six colors represented on the chart. Three of them are self-explanatory — green (go for it), yellow (field goal attempt), and red (punt).

– Another color, light green, indicates an area where the coach has to decide whether to go for it or attempt a field goal. This is dependent on game conditions, ability of the kicker, etc.

One of the more difficult aspects of creating this chart was determining the field goal parameters. Ultimately, I decided to base them on a field goal kicker (or unit, to be precise) with average accuracy and a realistic distance capability limit of 52 yards. I realize that may not strike everyone as perfect; feel free to adjust accordingly.

– You may notice that, when faced with a 4th down and either 1 or 2 yards to go, the coach should always go for it when within 58 yards of the goal line (i.e. the team’s own 42-yard line). That includes 4th-and-short situations inside the 5-yard line.

Remember, the goal is to score as many points as possible on each drive. Touchdowns are valuable enough that going for it near the goal line is almost always the percentage play, rather than kicking a field goal, because even if the team doesn’t convert, the opponent is usually stuck with terrible field position.

One exception to this: near the end of the first half, the field goal try becomes a more viable option inside the red zone, as bad field position for the opponent is no longer a factor (because the half is about to end anyway).

– Per this chart, in most circumstances the Bulldogs should either go for it or attempt a field goal when in opposing territory on any 4th down of 5 yards or less to go. That includes 4th-and-5 from the 50.

– There are two other color areas on the chart to discuss. One (light blue) is a section I am calling “General’s Choice”, after, naturally, General.

This is a section in which the Bulldogs’ two-year statistics tend to suggest that punting is probably the percentage play. However, the sample size is limited, and some of the available stats indicate that going for it may not be unreasonable.

Basically, if Brent Thompson decided to take a relatively aggressive approach, going for it in this area of the field on certain downs may be the right move.

– Then there is the gray section that I am calling “Boo Territory”, after the seemingly more hyper and aggressive of the school’s two mascots.

Most of the time, punting is the play in this section. Nonetheless, you can find a lot of analytical sources that would advocate going for it in this area.

The Citadel’s statistical profile doesn’t reflect that, which is why the section isn’t green (or even light blue). If Brent Thompson really wanted to make a statement during a game, though, he would go for it in Boo Territory (or maybe fake a punt).

Obviously, a chart like this would vary at least slightly for each game. Among the factors to consider in making adjustments to it: whether or not the team is playing at home, weather conditions, the opponent’s efficiency on offense and defense, its special teams units (both placekicking and punting), and its pace of play.

As you can probably tell, I’m ready for football season. It’s getting closer…

Other things I’ve written in the lead-up to the season:

– Part 1 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 run/pass tendencies and yards per play numbers)

– Part 2 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 fourth-down decision-making and plenty of other statistics)

– A look at advanced statistics, first down/third down information, and standard/passing down data

– Last year’s conference-only statistics for the SoCon (all teams), with some additional league observations

– Preseason rankings and ratings

– Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium: the annual review

– Which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

– A glance at the SoCon non-conference slate

Last but probably not least on the list of links: an interactive chart showing the percentage of time every FBS team has gone for it on 4th down (2009-2017)

 

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