It’s fourth-and-one in field goal range for the home team. Fans, normally in the stands but now scattered across the country, are imploring their team to go for it. Conventional wisdom holds for the kick attempt.
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown, though, doesn’t subscribe to the tenets of conventional wisdom. A devotee of analytics, he’s crunched, bent and analyzed the numbers every which way, and they often show that the old school bromides of “take the points” or “punt and play field position” aren’t always the best.
“We go in with a plan. (We use) data analytics, and we play the numbers,” he explained after his Mountaineers went 3-for-3 on fourth down, including once in overtime, in their 27-21 win over Baylor. “I believe in it; I think it’s proven. If you go for it on fourth down, especially in your plus territory over the course of a season, those percentages play in your favor. We always are going to be aggressive on fourth down.”
Brown was true to his beliefs from the outset. On WVU’s opening drive, the Mountaineers faced a fourth-and-six situation at the Bear 38. A pooch punt would have been the call not too long ago, but for Brown and a growing subset of coaches, that combination of down, distance and yardage to go calls for another offensive snap. One pass completion to Sam James later, and the drive continued. Eight plays later the Mountaineers scored a touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, WVU quarterback Jarret Doege converted another fourth down chance, this one at the Baylor 48. Those two plays, though, just set the stage for the biggest one of all.
After Baylor tied the score with a late TD, it won the overtime toss and elected to play defense first. After WVU gained nine yards on its first three snaps, it faced a fourth-and-one on the Baylor 16. A field goal would be the call for most, but an offseason of poring over the analysis for Brown dictated a different approach.
“In overtime, if you look at the numbers, which is something that was a little bit of an offseason study for me, if you get the ball first, field goals do not win in overtime. You
can look, there are numbers from a couple data programs we use, showing that field goals do not win in overtime. So we knew (we had to go for it) when we had the ball on fourth-and-one. Jarret had a really good suggestion. I thought our offensive staff was figuring out ways (to convert).”
The suggestion was a return to a naked bootleg and a throw to the tight end. WVU had run similar action at least two other times in the game, and felt that the call was a good counter to Baylor’s hard charging defensive ends.
“The one in overtime, they were really in there and jumping our cadence pretty well. So, we felt like we could throw it. That’s a play we like,” Brown explained. “Both that play on fourth-and-one and the first play of the second overtime, those naked plays, were plays we felt pretty good about.”
Both worked, with tight end Mike O’Laughlin rumbling for 10 yards on that critical fourth-an- one and then eight after a reception on the first play of the second OT. That set up the Mountaineers for the winning TD, but it might have been WVU’s aggressive mindset, fueled by Brown’s research and willingness to follow the numbers, that were the real keys.
“I think about it from Thursday on,” Brown said of the decisions to go, which aren’t based on emotion, but rather on the hard data. “If we get to a certain yard line, and it’s fourth-and-three or less we’re going to do this. (Some things) are predetermined. If we get in overtime and we get the ball first, we are going (for it). You can’t just make those (decisions) in the game. You have to put the thought process in.”
Brown stayed true to himself, and it paid off.
“I believe in it,” he reiterated. “I believe in it even if it doesn’t go our way. ”
If it didn’t go right I’d have to come in here and defend it, right?”