Go For It

Posted on October 17, 2018, in Football by MaizeAndBlueWahoo.

So when I took this gig, I did so with the idea of getting back to that aspect of blogging that appealed to me in the first place, which is heavy on the just plain writing and light on rabbit-hole analysis.  And in the future, that's pretty much the direction my weekly-ish writings will go.

For now, though, I can't help myself.  The Miami game set it up on a tee.  The siren call of the rabbit hole calls, and I must follow.

Don't worry, it's only one play.  Let's go back to the end of the game.  Jordan Ellis has just run four yards - against a stacked run defense that doesn't have to defend anything deeper than 21 yards away - to set the Hoos up with 4th and goal from the 7 and a ticking clock.  UVA takes a delay of game penalty, which sets up a slightly better angle for the field goal try that everyone knows is coming.  The FG makes perfect sense, it would seem.

Before we go any further, it's worth pointing out that it's hard to make a bad decision here.  Miami had no timeouts and winning at that point was going to take a miracle of some kind.  UVA would've had to botch the execution of something or other.  Short of sending out the punt team, nothing Bronco could've done qualifies as a bad idea.  But instead of that field goal, the (slightly) better move would've been to send Bryce Perkins and his crew back on the field to run one more play.  Why?  It's about squeezing more win probability out of the admittedly already pretty awesome situation, and reducing the chance of disaster. 

Take away the roughing penalty for a bit here; UVA would've had to kick off and protect a six point lead for about 25-30 seconds.  The kickoff is a chance for disaster.  If that gets returned all the way, it's over.  The field goal is another.  Miami was likely to sell out for the block (and they did just that) and if they succeed, the chances of a disaster - a TD return - spike to the stratosphere.  But outside that, the best you can probably hope for is to give Miami the ball at their own 25, down six, with about 28 seconds to work with.  The win probability calculator at Pro Football Reference gives the leading team a 93.1% chance of victory in that situation.  (It seems low.  You can probably add a few percentage points given Miami's lack of timeouts, which the calculator doesn't take into account.  But that's also balanced out slightly by the college rule of stopping the clock on a first down.)

But what if you run one more play to try and get the touchdown?  The best-case scenario there, of course, is going up two scores.  The game is iced barring a long string of unlikely disasters (KO return for a TD, onside kick recovery, etc.)  The reward is immense.  But if you fail?

Well, assuming you don't turn the ball over, the result is..... still actually better than being up by six defending from the 25.  If you just run the ball again and get stuffed for no gain, Miami gets the ball at their own 7, down by three points, with about 30 seconds to go.  The win probability calculator now says.... the leading team has a 95.25% chance of winning.  All above caveats about timeouts and college rules still apply, so our apples-to-apples comparison makes it clear: you're better off sacrificing the points to gain the yards - and reduce the opportunities for disaster.

And in a defensive struggle like that, it just feels that way, too.  Yes, if you kick the FG, Miami has to score a touchdown, and only needs a field goal if you get stuffed.  But that FG is to tie, not win.  And do you think the Canes are really marching 93 yards - or even 63 yards - in 30 seconds?  Even their easiest drive of the night took several minutes.  The worst-case scenario is a turnover returned for a touchdown - which, 1, can be avoided with the right play call (for example: a fade in the back of the end zone is not getting pick-sixed no matter who catches it), and 2, is really no different, or more or less likely, than the risk of getting your FG try blocked and returned.

All this doesn't make Bronco wrong to kick the field goal.  Hell, it worked.  I'm sitting here dreaming up disaster opportunities, and the FG attempt created one for the Canes that they just couldn't resist.  (That whole thing about selling out for the block has its downside.)  But if you want to make a move into mad genius territory, there are good moves and better ones.  The best move here is to go straight for the jugular.

This article contains the tags:

Miami, Conference