Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fourth down decisions

One aspect that made an otherwise boring game a little more interesting was Bret Bielema's playcalling on fourth down. Much has been made about this in the WSJ and in today's Daily Cardinal. Since UW didn't convert on any of these fourth downs, the power of hindsight has, of course, kicked in and allowed Mike Oates and Sam Pepper to inform us that these were Bad Decisions on the part of the Badgers' head coach. Let's examine these calls in greater detail and see what Bielema did right and what he did wrong.

Number 1
Time: ~6:30 left, second quarter
Distance: 3 yards
Position: SDSU 7
Score: 0-0
What happened: Stocco handed off to P.J. Hill, who gained only one yard.
What should have been done: Kick the field goal. At this point in the game it's becoming clear that points are going to be tough to come by. Also, the defense is playing very well. Of course, the Aztecs would be one play away from making it 7-3, but that's of no consequence, as on any other play thus far they were one play away from making it 7-0. Sure, it's tough to send out the kicker when you're on the 7 and there's still a possibility of a fresh set of downs. But when points are tough to get, the tough get points. Or something.

Number 2
Time: ~2:30 left, 3rd quarter
Distance: 1 yard
Position: SDSU 38
Score: 7-0, Badgers
What happened: Tyler Mehlhaff missed the 55-yard field goal
What should have been done: Probably what was done. The wind had been blamed for a lot of Stocco's overthrows, but the wind was at Mehlhaff's back. A kicker knows what he's capable of doing. I may be in the minority here, but I think that if the kicker says "I can get those points," you send him on. My second favorite option here: pooch punt and pin the Aztecs back. Trust the defense to make the stops they've been making all afternoon and try to receive a punt that'll start your drive within 10-15 yards of where you are right now with the FG attempt. This decision is second-guessable, but this is the call I would've made, too. (Note that the DC's Pepper strongly disagrees with me here. Note also that three games into the season he's suggesting that a new head coach who is undefeated appoint a "fourth downs coach.")

Number 3
Time: ~12:15 left, 4th quarter
Distance: 1 yard
Position: SDSU 47
Score: 7-0, Badgers
What happened: Stocco is stuffed on the quarterback keeper
What should have been done: Punt the ball. Again, trust the defense. They haven't failed yet. Once again, playing the field position game might work out. When you go for it at the 47, you give your opponent a very short field if you don't make it, but when the defense is handling the opposition like the Badger defense did Saturday, this doesn't matter quite as much. It's important to remember that one big play ties the game, though.

Number 4
Time: ~1:30 left, 4th quarter
Distance: 6 yards
Position: SDSU 29
Score: 14-0, Badgers
What happened: John Stocco scrambles for three yards and the ball goes to the Aztec on downs
What should have been done: Exactly this. Maybe not with a Stocco keeper (throw a screen or something) but you ought to be in clock-killing mode here. The FG is manageable but too risky; you don't want the thing blocked, taken in for a score, and then suddenly be staring at recovering an onside kick.

So, I agree with Bielema's decisions twice. Against an opponent like San Diego State (note to the Badger Herald: not South Dakota State; the mistake was corrected online, but you can see the error in the print edition) even number 3 is excusable. The only call I really don't like is the first one; if it had been fourth and one, sure, do for it. But fourth and three is too long, and you need to get points on the board.

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