Game situation: down 4, inside own 10, about 5:00 to go...

Submitted by snarling wolverine on October 27th, 2013 at 2:06 PM

That was Nebraska's situation against Minny yesterday when they reached 4th down and medium (4 to go?).  Their options:

-Punt (which they did) and hope to flip the field position.  NU had all of its timeouts, I believe.

-Go for it and hope to keep the ball

-Fake punt: is this a higher-percentage play than just lining up?

-Take the safety and make it a 6-point game, giving you a kickoff instead of a punt

What would you do?  

(Edited to add fake punt option.)



October 27th, 2013 at 2:30 PM ^

Problem with scenarios like these is that none of the options have a high percentage of giving you the win, not when you have a defense like Nebraska does.  So if you do any one of them and it doesn't work, you'll get crucified and without fail people will point out that you should have done something else.  Punting is just something that's been decided upon as socially acceptable over the past 140 years.


October 27th, 2013 at 2:55 PM ^

the field goal would be huge. The Nebraska D was not going to stop Minnesota from getting points. But they did keep them to a FG twice. If the best your D has done is keep them to a FG then you cant change it from a 4 point deficit to a 6 point deficit. If it was our D then the saftey plan wouldnt be bad. Unless we where playing Indiana. 


October 27th, 2013 at 2:14 PM ^

Punt. They likely get the ball around the 50, but if you can hold them to a field goal it's still a 1 possession game. A kickoff gives you a better shot at holding them scoreless, but you would need to in that case - a FG would lose you the game.


It's a very interesting question though, nobody would think to take the safety but the numbers might favor it. 

rob f

October 27th, 2013 at 2:17 PM ^

Without a doubt. Still need a TD whether it's a 4- or 6-point deficit. Can kick a lot further from the 20 than you can punt from your own end zone.


October 27th, 2013 at 2:44 PM ^

In all seriousness, I don't understand why we did not take a second delay of game penalty in the PSU situation to give our punter more room.  (The first one came before 3rd down).  Once it was clear that punting was the only realistic option on 4th down, taking a delay of game should be a no-brainer.



Bando Calrissian

October 27th, 2013 at 2:32 PM ^

The safety is an enticing option. It's unconventional, but if you want to play the field position game, you're a lot better off taking chances with the free kick and keeping it under a touchdown instead of risking a blocked punt, a shanked punt, or a big return. 


October 27th, 2013 at 2:48 PM ^

Hmmm . . . I hadn't thought about the safety but that might be the best option.  While a FG definitely beats you in that situation, the game would probably be over by the time the other team got into FG range, anyway.  It's ultimately up to your defense, but the safety gives you a chance to at least put the ball on the other side of the 50.




October 27th, 2013 at 2:51 PM ^

Sure, you might gain some yards in the process, but you lose two points, and suddenly Nebraska is one field goal away from effectively ending the game. At least with a punt, assuming it doesn't get blocked, you trust your defense to hold Nebraska to at least a field goal (if not force them to punt, worst case get pinned deep again). I'm not sure the yardage upgrade is worth the 2 points. You're going to need to a long drive regardless.

I don't think its a risk to get the punt blocked either...I doubt Minny would come after it very hard, considering they don't want to risk giving Neb a first down on a roughing the kicker. But then again, your punter is already in a high-stress situation, and is more likely to shank it...ah, I guess I don't know which way is better. I would feel uncomfortable just handing the opponent two points, though. If it goes wrong, you're going to catch a TON of heat after the game. 



October 27th, 2013 at 2:53 PM ^

The safety is actually an interesting idea here if I am Nebraska (or have an offense like Nebraska's). You can potentially get the yardage you probably meant to get in the first couple plays anyway and, if you're playing a defense that is prone to allowing big plays, it's not a bad risk. 


October 27th, 2013 at 3:07 PM ^

Well, the Nebraska fan base is in such a state of melt down than some have even suggested hiring Lane Kiffin (the desire to fire Pellini seems nearly universal), so maybe one of the scenarios should be, if you're the AD do you demand the coaches call a timeout, fire the HC during the timeout, then make the play call yourself?

Team 101

October 27th, 2013 at 3:17 PM ^

I think that was the right decision with a lot of time and time outs left.  It didn't work yesterday but I'm not sure if it would have mattered.


October 27th, 2013 at 3:40 PM ^

I would punt. The possibility of the other team getting a field goal is important. If you take a safety and they get a field goal, basically game over. If you punt and hold them to a FG you still have a fighting chance.


October 27th, 2013 at 3:57 PM ^

I know the safety feels like the right play, but you never want to give up points if you don't need to.  Punting isn't much better, but there is a chance for a TO that you might not get having to take the ball down the field again.  Against Minny and that offense, I would have been in full go-for-it mode because you know they can bleed the clock out if they get the ball, but with a punt maybe they settle for a FG if they get close enough and they are in a difficult down and distance.  

It's a tough situation because with Nebraska's defense you might not get the ball back after the KO either way.


October 28th, 2013 at 12:12 PM ^

"but you never want to give up points if you don't need to. "

100% false. You do what it takes to give you the best chance to win. A few years ago New England did an intentional safety because they were down inside their own 10, and then IIRC did a successful onside kick and eventually won. Just yesterday the Lions declined a holding call that would have taken Dallas out of field goal range to save time, which they needed to come back and win. Sometimes giving up the points is clearly the right thing to do.


October 27th, 2013 at 4:04 PM ^

I think you punt if you have a reliable punter. In hindsight, Nebraska's punter did not look good that time and biffed it. The difference between Minnesota starting from the 50 and starting on Nebraska's 34 is huge.


October 27th, 2013 at 5:49 PM ^

Safety is probably the worst option. If you give up a TD, you are looking at a loss. What you need to look at is what does a FG do to you.

If you go for it/fake it and don't get it and end up giving up a FG, you are down 7.

If you punt, and b/c of filed position, you give up a FG, you are down 7.

If you take the safety and give up a FG, you are down 9 and you're done.


October 27th, 2013 at 6:06 PM ^

But the question is what gives you the best probability of not giving up a FG/TD. The free kick after the safety probably gains you 20 yards in field position at least vs. punting. You give up two first downs and you probably lose regardless with only 5:00 to go. Honestly if I had been Nebraska I would have gone for it, but I don't think the punt was that terrible a choice. I think all 3 choices are fairly close which is why it's an interesting game theory brain teaser. 

snarling wolverine

October 27th, 2013 at 6:17 PM ^

Yeah, you basically have to assume your defense is going to get a stop if you choose to punt or kick.  The safety carries the danger of the game being put away if the other team kicks a FG, but it will be harder for them to get in FG range first.  Also, if you do force a 3-and-out, you'd probably get the ball in better field position in that case than you would after a punt.  It's a close call; I don't think there's an obvious answer.

Cold War

October 27th, 2013 at 6:20 PM ^

The safety is buying maybe 30 yards of field position? That's nice, but it doesn't make up for the fact your opponent can end the  game with a field goal and doesn't need a touchdown.

Going for it? The numbers probably suggest that's the play in situations where it goes totally against conventional wisdom. Coaches may think it's a higher percentage play, but if it fails there's hell to pay. And if it works, you were just lucky.


October 28th, 2013 at 12:39 PM ^

But in a one-possession game, 30 yards of field position can be huge.  Remember that you're also trying to set up your offense for its eventual possesson (assuming you get a defensive stop).

It depends on what kind of defense you have.  If you have a lot of faith in your D, the safety is a reasonable choice.  In Nebraska's case, it may not be.  Actually, they may have been best off going for it, the way they couldn't stop Minnesota.

Double Wolverine

October 27th, 2013 at 9:40 PM ^

Screen pass.

On 4th down with a chance to end the game the D is going to pin their ears back at the first sign of pass. Let them come and throw it right over their heads to a RB with blockers.

Maybe I play too much NCAA / have the Indiana game burned into my memory, but 5 minutes is plenty of time if the play doesn't work and I need 2 scores.


October 28th, 2013 at 7:19 AM ^

Saw this scenario in abother game Saturday. I'm a Tulane alum, so I was watching their game with Tulsa this weekend. Tulane led 14-7 with about 3.5 minutes left. Tulsa was facing 4th and 7ish from inside their own 10 and went for it. Tulsa got the 1st, but gave it up on downs later in the drive. Seemed like a gutsy play at the time, but probably the right one.


October 28th, 2013 at 8:23 AM ^

With Michigan/Greg Mattison, punt.  With Nebraska/Taylor Martinez I would strongly consider spreading it out with a pass/run option for martinez or if they have something else kinda crazy like that double pitch play, that would be cool.

Red is Blue

October 28th, 2013 at 8:50 AM ^

Was watching a game the other day and someone asked a question that I can fit into this scenario. I think the penalty for holding on a punt return is 10 yds from the spot of the foul. What keeps Minny from putting 10 guys on the line and holding everyone on Neb. With the line of scrimmage being the 10, wouldn't the penalty get marked off to the 20? It would obviously free up the returner to get big yardage.


October 28th, 2013 at 1:14 PM ^

This thread needs some numbers.  Numbers from Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability and 4th Down Calculators.  Obviously the numbers here aren't going to be 100% spot on since the calculator is based on the NFL instead of college, but they can still be instructive.

Situation: 4th and 4, ball on your own 10 yard line, 5:00 to play, down 4.  The calculator is giving us a baseline 17% win probability before we do anything.

So, if you have a punting unit where you can be reasonably sure of netting 45 yards, then punting will give your opponent the ball on their own 45.  In that situation, with 5 minutes to go, you can expect your opponent to score the game-icing TD 23% of the time and the FG another 16% of the time.  In all, the opponent will have a 83% chance of winning from that position.  All of our 17% win probability is preserved.

If you take the safety, then that same punting unit will result in the opponent getting the ball on their own 35, but up 6 points now.  In that situation, the opponent's odds of scoring a TD or FG go down to 20% and 12% respectively, but their win odds go up to 86%.

Going for it will be break-even from a win-probability standpoint if we can succeed 71% percent of the time, which is not terribly realistic.  The calculator estimates that going for it will decrease our expected win probability to 14%.


So, going by those numbers, punting is superior to any other play by 3% win probability, and taking the safety yields the same win probability as going for it.


October 28th, 2013 at 2:06 PM ^

It's also interesting to consider how bad you would have to be at punting in order for going for the 4th down to be worth it.  Above, netting 45 yards per punt yields a 17% win probability, while going for it has an expectation of 14% win probability.

-A 40 yard punt yields 17% win probability

-A 35 yard punt yields 16% win probability

-A 30 yard punt yields 14% win probability

So, punting is the play so long as you can net at least 30 yards.