Should they go for it here?
It’s a question asked every week during the college football season. Sometimes multiple times during an individual games. Heck, it’s been asked so many times that there are Twitter bots exclusively created to give fans up-to-the-minute win probability in a specific fourth down situation if their favorite team goes for it vs. if they punt or kick a field goal.
In general, teams are getting more aggressive on fourth down. The nerds, as they say, are winning. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated:
In 2017, the average team went for it on fourth down 1.59 times per game, with a success rate of 51.8%. In 2018, those numbers ticked up to 1.69 and 53.4%. In 2019, attempts again rose slightly (1.67) while success dipped slightly (52.9%). Then came 2020, and it seems something of a pandemic YOLO spirit pervaded the sport—attempts shot up to 1.85 per game, with a 55.5% success rate. To date (Nov. 1, 2021), teams are averaging 1.75 attempts and converting 54.3% of the time.
Moral of the story, fourth down attempts are on the rise. Why is that? It’s pretty simple: Math!
There are more situations in which the extra set of downs is more valuable than a field goal or a punt than coaches once believed. The “conventional wisdom” has been tested and it hasn’t stood the test of scrutiny. Coaches at every level have opened up to the idea of getting more aggressive on fourth down, especially as they witness the success of coaches like Josh Heupel at Tennessee, or John Harbaugh with the Ravens.
As an aside — does it surprise you to learn Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M) and Scott Frost (Nebraska) were among the bottom four teams nationally in fourth down attempts? Yeah, me neither. That’s not the group you want to be associated with. Not in 2023.
Missouri finished the season in the bottom third nationally in fourth down attempts (20), conversions (10) and conversion rate (50%). None of that screams the Tigers have a fourth down aggression problem. Let’s take a peek beneath the hood to explore things a bit further.
The Tigers faced a fourth and one eight times this past season in 10 games against power five competition. They punted twice and went for it six times. Strangely, four of those eight opportunities on 4th and one came against Tennessee. Weird quirk.
The Tigers faced a fourth and 2 or 3 yards a total of 17 times this past season against power five opponents. They kicked two field goals in those situations, punted the ball 10 times and went for it just five times. To expand it a step further, those fourth down “go for it” attempts took place on the final play against Kansas State, the last play of their last possession against Florida, and then two attempts in the meaningless (sorry, but yes, it was meaningless) bowl game against Wake Forest. The lone “aggressive” fourth down call came on Missouri’s first possession of the second half against Arkansas when Eli Drinkwitz went for it on fourth and two at the Razorbacks’ 45-yard line while trailing Arkansas, 21-20. Missouri converted and scored a touchdown four plays later. Think that decision mattered? Maybe a little.
Missouri’s only other fourth down attempts against power five opponents on 4th and longer than three yards came on the final play of the first half against Kansas State, the final play of the game against Wake Forest, and again against Wake Forest on a 4th and four late in the third quarter while trailing, 20-17.
Mizzou Fourth Downs vs. P5 Competition (2022):
|Situation:||Go For It:||Punt:||FG:|
|Situation:||Go For It:||Punt:||FG:|
|4th & 1:||6||2||0|
|4th & 2-3:||5||10||2|
|4th & 4-6:||2||12||6|
|4th & 7+:||1||32||10|
Alright, that’s a lot of data. Let’s get to the gist of it.
The TL;DR version is this: If it’s a 4th and 1, Missouri went for it roughly 75 percent of the time. If it was 4th and two or three, the Tigers went for it about 33 percent of the time. If it was 4th down and the Tigers had four or more yards to go and they weren’t on the final play of a half or playing in meaningless bowl game, well, they weren’t going for it.
Alright, we found our aggressiveness issue.
I’m not saying Missouri needs to go for it on every fourth down. Don’t be stupid. But the following situations were at least potential go-for-it spots for Missouri during the 2022 season:
at Kansas State:
- Punted from the KSU 45 on 4th & 6 down 20-3 late in the first half
- Punted from MIZ 40 on 4th & 3 tied at 14 with 7:50 to play
- Kicked a FG on 4th & goal from the 4-yard line up 13-3 late in the first half
- Punted from UF 45 on 4th and 3 on first possession of game
at South Carolina:
- Kicked a FG to go up 17-0 on 4th & goal from SC 2-yard line midway through the third quarter
- Kicked a field goal (missed) on 4th & goal from the South Carolina 3-yard line.
- Punted from MIZ 41 on 4th & 1 down 28-14 late in 2nd quarter
- Punted on 4th & 2 from own 33 down 49-24 late in third quarter
- Punted from MIZ 47 on 4th & 2 while down 21-20 with 10 seconds left in first half
- Punted from MIZ 44 on 4th & 1 on first possession
Missouri didn’t need to go for it on every one of those opportunities. Coaches have a feel for the game, a feel for their team and a feel for their scheme that we simply cannot have from the outside looking in. That being said, it’s clear Missouri could and probably should be more aggressive on fourth down. The best coaches in the sport are leading the way in this regard, and Missouri has been behinds in the first three years of the Drinkwitz era.
Maybe that will change as Drinkwitz hands play-calling duties to Kirby Moore. Maybe Moore has better short-yardage packages. Maybe an extra year of experience for Brady Cook gives Drinkwitz more confidence in those high-leverage spots. Maybe a new quarterback has the same result. Maybe Drinkwitz has an easier time managing the game and situations without having to deal with the play-calling duties. Maybe he just spends the offseason watching old Sloan Conference videos.
Whatever the reason, however it happens, it’s time for the Tigers to take a page out of the classic movie, “Bring it On” and BE AGGRESSIVE, BE-BE AGGRESSIVE.
I’ll see myself out.