Utah and Stanford each won marquee, Pac-12 Conference games in Week 4 on the strength of fourth downs. Each employed radically different strategies.
UCLA’s defense contained Stanford for the better part of 59 minutes Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl, limiting the Cardinal to just three field goals. “They kicked our backsides,” is the blunt assessment David Shaw gave of UCLA’s performance against his offense.
Another stingy Bruin defensive stand with just under five minutes remaining forced a fourth-and-1 from the Stanford 39-yard line, and a decision for Shaw — only, there really wasn’t much decision that needed to be made.
“We trust our defense,” he said. “Fourth-and-1, with good field position, we’d have gone for it. Bad field position; that field position, we don’t go for it. We never go for it with that much time left and the defense we have.
“Coincidentally, I had that exact conversation with my wife this morning,” Shaw added. “Midfield-to-our side of the field, fourth-and-1, we punt it every single time.”
Shaw’s faith in his defense was validated throughout the night, limiting the Bruins to just 13 points. Likewise, the special teams unit earned its vote of confidence, first with Jake Bailey booting a punt deep into UCLA territory, and the coverage team swallowing up explosive returner Ishmael Adams at the 14.
Stanford’s defense got off the field in five plays and a little more than two minutes, setting up the Cardinal at the 30 — not far from where they’d punted previously — and beginning the eventual, game-winning drive.
So what spurred the prophetic conversation between Shaw and wife Kori?
“The last two weeks, there were two or three games that happened in,” he explained, alluding to other contests around college football when fourth-down situations dictated decisions late in contests. “Some worked, some didn’t work. We talked about it, and I told her what my philosophy is, I’m not changing any time soon. I think it’s the smart thing to do.”
Shaw noted that a failure on the defensive end is a separate issue from a special teams failure.
What occurred the night prior in Salt Lake City wasn’t a special teams failure for USC, but a defensive one. Nevertheless, an approach akin to Stanford’s cost the Trojans their second Pac-12 loss of the young season.
Utah went 97 yards for a drive that culminated in a Troy Williams touchdown pass to Tim Patrick, all starting with a situational decision to punt.
“Typically being an offensive guy, I like to be aggressive and go for it on fourth down,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “Situationally, you have to make some decisions as a head coach. In the normal flow of the game, when you get in that four-down territory, depending whether you’re down or up, you can be aggressive and go if you’re down.”
Situational circumstances lend to a larger discussion of data analysis. Conversion rates on fourth-down attempts, particularly from certain distances, might dictate a team’s willingness to attempt a fourth-down conversion.
Analytics help Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, whose willingness to gamble on fourth downs paid off for the Utes.
“It’s been a great help,” he said. “We have, I guess you could say, a scientific approach when to go for it. We definitely lean on that as well. It’s not necessarily gospel…If you’re on the fence as a coach, and your analytics say one thing or another, it will help you make your decision as a coach.
The sample size was small, but coming into Friday’s game, the USC defense allowed three conversions on five attempts in the season. Utah’s four conversions Friday mean the Trojans have surrendered seven on the season.
Because the analytical information at this juncture in the season is low, making in-game decisions based on personnel and performance at that moment weighs heavily, too.
“A lot of it comes from just a gut feel,” Whittingham said of the ultimate decision to go or punt. “How have you been at the line of scrimmage? Are they penetrating into your backfield? Obviously the circumstances: down and distance, field position, time remaining. The overriding determining, though is just a gut feeling.
“We had a situation Friday where we felt good about our control at the line of scrimmage,” he added.
Statistical analysis and game flow seemingly matter less at Stanford.
“All these statistical things about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, that stuff doesn’t matter to me,” Shaw said. “We have a belief: It’s field position, it’s running the ball, it’s playing defense, it’s making explosive plays in the passing game and being efficient in the passing game.
“Call it conservatism if you want,” Shaw added. “I call it field position. So much of it gets lost right now in the spread offenses and all the things people do [offensively].”
The unifying theme, for as different as the approaches might be, comes down to personnel. USC’s fourth-down defense in 2013, when Clancy Pendergast last coordinated, was one of the best in the nation, allowing eight conversions on 22 attempts.
USC’s personnel now looks considerably different than it did in 2013. Likewise for Utah, Williams’ rise at quarterback has given the Utes more of a passing threat than they’ve had in some time — perhaps since Alex Smith led the 2004 squad to an undefeated season and the Fiesta Bowl.
Personnel also makes Shaw’s dedication to a specific philosophy more easily implemented. Stanford’s routine prowess on the lines of scrimmage, especially on the defensive line, beget decision-making that trusts the defense.
Punt or go for it? It’s a simple question with only one of two answers. Showing the work for how to arrive there might be the most complex math a coach has to perform.