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2010 Apple Cup: Fourth Down Plays Were Key

If Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian took anything from his previous boss at USC, Pete Carroll, it has to be Pete's propensity to buck tradition and go for it on 4th down.  Last weekend in Berkeley, Sarkisian elected not to kick the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, instead putting the game into the hands of his offensive line and running back Chris Polk.  That worked out really well for the Huskies, and taking the fourth down "gamble" proved beneficial again during the Apple Cup.

UW faced four fourth downs in WSU territory, three of which were within field goal range.  They went for it every single time. WSU faced two fourth downs in Washington territory and went for it once.  The first of those was on the opening drive, when they had a 4th and 1 at the UW 44.  After being stuffed on the 3rd and 2 play, they elected to punt the ball away.

On the ensuing drive, UW was presented with a 4th and 1 at the WSU 17.  This was well within field goal range, but UW went for it.  They got it as Jake Locker evaded Travis Long in a play that will haunt me for the rest of my life.  The drive ended with a touchdown two plays later.

In the second quarter, Washington saw their second 4th down in WSU territory, and faced the prospects of a third straight three and out.  UW brought on the punt team, with one exception.  Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse was lined up in the gunner position.  WSU failed to noticed this, and punter Kiel Rasp was able to lob the ball up to Kearse for a thirty yard gain.  Jake Locker ran the ball in the endzone on the next play to put UW ahead 14-0.

The one time the strategy backfired was on the first play of the 4th quarter.  UW had 4th and goal from the WSU 1.  They could have kicked the field goal to make it a two-possession game at 24-14.  However, Sarkisian stayed consistent and the Huskies ran out the offense.  The play turned out well for the Cougs, as Locker had the ball knocked out of his hand by his own player and WSU was able to return the fumble to midfield.

Four plays later, the Cougs saw their second chance at a 4th down conversion in Husky territory.  This time, not wanting to lose the momentum they had just seized by the fumble, they went for it.  The play call was baffling, as WSU lined up in a jumbo set, then split the tight end out wide to send two men in a pass pattern.  Jeff Tuel was forced to try and scramble and brought down in the backfield.  It turns out that play was a direct result of UW's stop of James Montgomery on the very first drive.  UW sold out against the run on that play, and WSU was gambling that they would do it again. Obviously, they didn't.  WSU came up empty after the huge fumble, and it seemed the game was sealed at Chris Polk ran for a 57-yard touchdown on the very next play.

Of course, WSU battled back and that left UW with one more huge fourth down decision, a 4th and 1 at the WSU 31 with 81 seconds left in a tie game.  At first, the Huskies sent out kicker Erik Folk to try and give them the lead, but Sarkisian changed his mind and called timeout.  UW send the offense back out.  Chris Polk converted the first down and Locker hit Kearse for the game-winning TD two plays later.

Both teams saw some big fourth down plays in front of them.  WSU's were in a place where they could not kick a field goal, so by "playing it safe" they would get no points.  They went for it once and got no points, so they broke even on those drives.  However, for UW, the gambles most certainly paid off, even with the goal line fumble.  If Washington decides to go with "conventional wisdom" on all four of those fourth downs, they are left with nine points at most from those drives.  By going for it, those four drives accumulated 21 points.  That's 12 points they would have left on the table by kicking.  

In a game that came down to the wire, with a final spread of just a touchdown, it's pretty clear that going for it on 4th down was hugely successful.  In fact, you could easily say it won the game for the Huskies.

Follow the 2011 Apple Cup