Knowing When to Go for It

Louisiana State's Jacob Hester scored the winning touchdown against Florida. The play was set up by a successful fourth-down conversion.
Louisiana State's Jacob Hester scored the winning touchdown against Florida. The play was set up by a successful fourth-down conversion. (By Doug Benc -- Getty Images)
Saturday, October 13, 2007

It is fourth down. Go for it or kick?

At times, it is the toughest decision for a college coach, who must consider a variety of factors before he makes a decision, all while hearing the cries from the home crowd to go for it.

Fourth-down plays had a significant role in making last week's late-night games all the more dramatic and are one of the many reasons why this season is as unpredictable as any in recent memory.

There may not be another coach as gutsy as Les Miles, whose Louisiana State team converted all five of their fourth-down attempts in the classic comeback victory over Florida. LSU went for it on fourth and one from the Florida 7 in the final minutes on a drive that resulted in the winning touchdown.

"I just didn't roll the dice," Miles said Sunday. "There were some reasons to do and don't with those things: momentum, feel of the game. We were fortunate that Jacob Hester made some good plays, and we did some blocking."

Stopping the play is no sure thing even when a team knows its opponent has to go for it. USC knew Stanford was going to go for it on fourth and 20 from the Trojans 29, but Stanford still made the first down. What made the conversion even more improbable was that quarterback Tavita Pritchard said he could not hear the play call and had to improvise.

Moments later, Stanford converted a fourth-and-goal play from the 10 to score the winning touchdown.

During a lengthy study of fourth down plays in the NFL, David Romer, an economics professor at California-Berkeley, used the complicated Bellman Equation to help conclude that coaches are not as aggressive as they should be on fourth downs.

But mathematical analysis may not account for the human element. Clemson Coach Tommy Bowden said several factors go into the decision: score of the game, field position and a gut feeling about how players are performing.

"All three of those are very important," he said. "Some more important than others."


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