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Just go for it: Expert says O'Brien wise to be aggressive on 4th down

September 13, 2012 - Cory Giger
In a lot of ways, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien doesn't really have anything to lose, so why not gamble a bunch on fourth down.

Only it's not gambling, according to statistical research. It's actually smart football, albeit unconventional.

It's playing the percentages.

"The numbers will tell you that anything less than fourth-and-8 from the 50, you ought to go for it," said Toby Moskowitz, a college professor who wrote the book -- literally -- on fourth-down conversions.

"I don't think there's a single coach in college football that would go for it on fourth-and-8 at the 50, but [research] certainly tells you that even if you're like fourth-and-3, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor of going for it."

O'Brien already has shown he likes going for it on fourth down, converting 5-of-7 chances in two games. Earlier this week, he made the following declaration:

"Once we get really close to the 50, I'm pretty much not going to punt it. I'm just going to tell you that. Like, we're going to go for it, unless it's fourth and forever."

Moskowitz says that's the way O'Brien and all coaches should approach fourth downs.

Moskowitz co-authored a book in 2011 called Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. In his research, Moskowitz tracked about 3,500 fourth-down situations in the NFL over a 10-year period (1999-2009) and evaluated the results.

The research showed that "96 percent of the time the coaches chose to kick," Moskowitz said.

That's a mistake, too.

"If you run the numbers, the numbers are pretty staggering," said the author, a finance professor at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The fourth-down component of the book focuses on NFL games, which obviously are different from the college and high school levels. Still, NFL defenses are more advanced than the lower levels, so it can be concluded that if going for it more often actually would work in the pros, it would be even more effective in college.

"From anyplace on the field, you can calculate statistically if it's better to go for it or kick," said Moskowitz, who based his calculations on field position and the opponent's probability of scoring after a punt or failed fourth-down attempt.

"In most situations where the game is not on the line ... the numbers will tell you that in your opponent's territory you ought to go for it."

The most publicized example of a gung-ho fourth-down approach is Kevin Kelley, who coaches at Pulaski Academy High School in Little Rock, Ark. Kelley never punts -- ever -- even deep in his own territory on fourth-and-long, and he's been wildly successful, winning three state titles.

"I'm probably a dumb man if you ask a lot of people," Kelley told the Mirror during a 2010 interview, when a former quarterback of his was getting ready to start for Kent State against PSU. "But as long as we keep winning around here, I don't care what people say."

O'Brien doesn't really have to care what people say, either, given that he has the leverage of being in the first season of a nine-year contract. He has taken over a Penn State football program dealing with NCAA sanctions that can't go to a bowl game for four years and doesn't have great expectations, plus he makes $2.3 million per year.

Even if he loses games for a few years, as long as he continues to do everything right off the field and represent the program well, it's doubtful the school will fire him.

O'Brien isn't likely to go wild on fourth down all the time, but he would seem to have a lot of things going in his favor that would allow him to gamble much more than other coaches.

"Given where Penn State is right now after all that's happened, no one expects much from them," Moskowitz said. "They don't have a particularly good team that they're putting on the field. It's not bad, but they're not competing for a national championship or anything like that.

"So he's in a very good position, both in terms of job security and in terms of people's expectations, to try all kinds of stuff."

The probabilities may show it's better to go for it more often, but coaches generally don't, Moskowitz pointed out, because they have angry fans and athletic directors to deal with, plus they're likely to get blasted by the media.

"They may say, 'The numbers might back me up going for it, but boy, it's not clear that everybody sees it that way, and if I fail, that's a lot worse than if I just punt the ball away,'" Moskowitz said.

O'Brien's former boss knows all about that.

In 2009, New England coach Bill Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 with 2:08 to play and holding a 34-28 lead over Indianapolis. The Patriots, with O'Brien as an assistant coach, failed to convert, and Peyton Manning led the Colts to a 35-34 comeback win.

"Belichick goes for it on fourth down, he fails and they end up losing, and he's just grilled for weeks," Moskowitz said.

Failure often draws more criticism than success does praise, Moskowitz pointed out, so people tend to avoid taking risks for fear of failing.

Coaches typically are the same.

Players, however, love taking risks -- and love having their coach put his faith in them on fourth down.

"I've always been a big fan of the saying, 'There are four downs for a reason,'" PSU quarterback Matt McGloin said. "I like going for it on fourth down. I like taking that opportunity. We've been successful with it so far."

Seeing O'Brien go for it also encourages the defensive players, who see it as a sign of confidence in them that they can stop the opponent if the offense fails to convert.

"We're always urging him on to go for it," cornerback Stephon Morris.

When it comes time to go for it, the offensive players get a rush and a sense of urgency to deliver.

"If Coach O'Brien says to go for it on fourth down," center Matt Stankiewitch said, "we're all going to look at each other in the huddle and say, 'Let's do this.'"

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