Three of yesterday’s games featured atrocious game-theory decisions by the losing coaches. None should have been even close calls, and yet the coaches got them wrong. I don’t just mean “wrong,” in that the strategy turned out badly, but in that no coach knowledgeable in the odds should have made those decisions.
In the Outback Bowl, Georgia was in the driver’s seat, as its defense intercepted Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins in the first overtime. All the Bulldogs needed was a field goal to win. On 1st & 10, the Bulldogs gained 2 yards. On 2nd & 10, coach Mark Richt called a run, to position the ball in the middle of the field, which lost 2 yards. He then attempted a field goal on 3rd down, which Kicker Blair Walsh missed wide right. Michigan State went on to win in triple overtime.
Walsh was 19-31 (61%) on the year, so his 42-yard attempt was no gimme. (Walsh also missed a 47-yarder in the 3rd OT that would have extended the game.) Had Richt elected to run a real play, even a conservative one, on 3rd down, there is almost certainly a far better than 61% chance that it would have gained positive yards, either making a first down or making the FG attempt on 4th down an easier one.
Except in situations where there is very little time left (which is not a factor in OT), it hardly ever makes sense to attempt a field goal before 4th down.
In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin took over at its own 13 yard line with 23 seconds to play, trailing by 7. Incredibly, Oregon played practically no defense at all, allowing Badger QB Russell Wilson to complete a 29-yard pass to a receiver who then went out of bounds, and a 33-yard pass to a receiver who remained in-bounds. There were 2 seconds left, with the ball on the Oregon 25 yard line. Wisconsin could run one more play, but they had to line up in a hurry. Incredibly, coach Bret Bielema called for Wilson to spike the ball, stopping the clock at 0:00, ending the game.
For Bielema’s strategy to work, the play to spike the ball needed to take just 1 second. Since any play must take some time, it can only work if the center snaps the ball the very instant the referee starts the clock. That is extremely difficult to do, as Michigan and Washington State fans will recall from the 1998 Rose Bowl, when Cougar QB Ryan Leaf attempted to do the identical thing, with the identical result. The “spike-the-ball” strategy almost always takes two seconds, something every coach should know.
Of course, it was no certainty that the Badgers would score from the 25 yard line, but Bielema’s decision deprived them of the chance to try.
In the Fiesta Bowl, the Stanford Cardinal had a 1st & 10 from the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ 25 in a tie game, with 52 seconds to play. With the Heisman Trophy runner-up Andrew Luck at QB, coach David Shaw didn’t even try to make another first down, electing instead to drain the clock and attempt a 35-yard field goal on 3rd down as time expired.
The problem with playing for a FG, is that the kick is not automatic, and you’re foregoing the chance to get more. Just like the Georgia game, the FG was far from certain: kicker Jordan Williamson had already missed a 41-yarder earlier in the game, and he would miss a 43-yarder in overtime. The odds were much more in the Cardinal’s favor if coach Shaw had tried to get another first down or two, which with 52 seconds remaining there was plenty of time to do, and Andrew Luck had been nearly perfect all day.
In OT, Shaw once again took the ball out of Luck’s hands, losing 2 yards on two running plays (with a false start sandwiched in between), before calling a safe pass on 3rd down that set up kicker Williamson’s third miss of the evening.