Second Guessing Curious Decisions In The Stanford Game

I don't like playing revisionist with football decisions because hindsight is almost always 20/20. When a decision fails, it's easy to look back, decide the opposite call would've worked and assume it was a poor decision. However, there were two decisions head coach Paul Wulff made against Stanford that stood out to me, not because they failed, but because they defied what the odds say a coach should do.

After the game, Christian Caple, who does a great job covering WSU and everything else in the area for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, sent out few tweets that caught my eye.

Instead of praising WSU for not giving up, maybe ask why they didn't go for 2 on TD that cut it to 38-21. Conversion, a two-score game...less than a minute ago via web

...Follow with an onside kick, clearly still trying to win. Why not REALLY try to win?less than a minute ago via web

Was he right? Read on for that and more.

At the time, it didn't dawn on me that going for two was the right play. It didn't even cross my mind until I saw what Caple wrote. So I looked into it, finding the odds and the two-point conversion charts many coaches keep in their back pocket. You can find that chart here.

The chart breaks puts a number on almost every possible situation a coach can go for two. The decimal numbers contained within the table can be interpreted to find when it's the right decision to go for it. Assuming the success rate for a two-point conversion is 40 percent, the rate given on that page, a team should always go for two when the cell is less than 40 percent. With three minutes to go, down 18, the no-brainer decision was to go for two.

The other decision -- or really the non-decision -- came in the second quarter. On third down, Jared Karstetter had enough for the first down but jumped back to avoid a defender, leaving WSU inches short of converting. With a fourth and inches from their own 36 and just over five minutes to go in the first half, the Cougs punted.

The line of thinking on fourth down calls is simple in terms of probability. No matter where a team is on the field, going for it on fourth and two or less is the right play. In fact, when 65 yards from the end zone, going for it on fourth and four or less is the right play. The conversion success rate for a fourth and inches from outside the opponents' 20 is around 75 percent. The odds are in the offense's favor.

Considering the WSU defense hadn't been able to stop Stanford in the first half -- outside of a Kevin Kooyman interception with Stanford deep in WSU territory -- there was no reason not go for it. Instead, Reid Forrest uncorked a booming kick into the end zone and Stanford drove 80 yards for the score -- putting the Cardinal up 24-7 going into the half.

We don't know if these two decisions would've changed the course of the game, and it doesn't really matter to me. What does matter is electing to kick the extra point and punt on fourth and inches flew in the face of some overwhelming odds at the time.  

I highly suggest wading through the slides on fourth down odds and checking out the two point conversion table if you want to know more about the math behind some of the decisions coaches make throughout a game. The formulas for fourth down conversions are much more complicated than I outlined here. To get an idea of how the conclusions are drawn, read more about them here.

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