When Bold Is Bad

Earlier today I covered Jimbo Fisher's bold move in calling for the fake punt at Maryland. Now I'll discuss a time in which Fisher & co were bold and it did not work.

Let's set the scene:

FSU is tied 21-21 with N.C. State in the fourth quarter.  It's 4th down and 1 on the Wolfpack 13 yard line.  FSU had marched 59 yards on 8 plays.  There are more than 9 minutes left in the game. The right call here is to go for the first down and not kick.  Here's David Wunderlich on the concept:   

Back in 1893, having a good punting game was considered to have a demoralizing effect on the opponent because good punters were rare and field position was precious. The reverence for punting has faded, but its place in the common wisdom of the game has not.

In recent years, there have been plenty of people examining when teams should go for it on fourth down. Economist David Romer probably started the current trend of looking at that issue, but it has been continued by a variety of people including ESPN's Gregg EasterbrookBurke, MGoBlog's Mathlete, and the authors of Scorecasting. Unsurprisingly, they all reached more or less the same conclusion: teams should go for it on fourth down far more often than they currently do. To date, the only person to take those studies and make a strategy out of them is the oft-profiled Kevin Pulaski, a high school coach in Arkansas.

When it comes down to it, the equation on what to do on fourth down is complex. Its variables include the quality of your offense, the quality of the defense you're facing, and sometimes the skill of your field goal kicker too. You can't make a chart that applies to all teams in all situations. It's at the very least something for teams with good offenses to look into, especially when knowing you're not punting in a given region of the field opens up more options with the first three downs of a set.

So you see, the bold move here was to kick.  Going for the first was much less risky.  Kicking is bold because it shows a lack of understanding of the reciprocal value of field position.

Fisher Kicked.  FSU went up 24-21.  The 'Noles then allowed a big kick return and lost the game 24-28 when Ty Jones messed up a playfake (and yes, this was 100% on Jones and not on Ponder), causing a fumble on the subsequent drive.

If Fisher had not made the gamble to kick, and instead went with the sound play of going for the first, the game could have been much different.  Even if FSU did not convert, the smarter play is to go for the first down because N.C. State would have been pinned inside its own 15.  

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