Should Pitt Have Pulled a Westbrook? Does Brian Kelly Play Madden?

By Daniel Adler

This article also appears on Huffington Post.

It certainly looks like Cincinnati is trying to tackle Dion Lewis (28) in this photo. Courtesy AP

Today’s de facto Big East Championship between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati provides us here at HSAC another chance to analyze some interesting late game coaching strategy.  Today, we will take a look at Cincinnati’s Madden-like decision to (seemingly) lie down on defense at the end of Pitt’s penultimate drive.

Cincinnati trailed most of the game, down 31-10 in the first half.  With a stout second half defense and the awakening of their offense, the Bearcats tied the score at 38 on a rushing touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter.  Pitt took the ball with 5:46 at their own 33.  Using a combination of clock eating runs, a key pass, and a costly Cincinnati personal foul, Pitt brought the ball to the Cincinnati 29 with 2:44.  Cincinnati used their first timeout to stop the clock on 3rd and 9.  The Panthers picked up a key first down to keep their drive going downfield.  On 1st and 10 at the Cincinnati 13, the Panthers ran the ball to the Cincinnati 5.

On 2nd and 2, the Bearcats defense seemingly lied down and let Dion Lewis run into the end-zone, practically untouched.  With the touchdown and botched extra point, the Panthers took a 44-38 lead with 1:36 remaining and the Bearcats poised to receive the ball with two timeouts.  Assuming they meant to allow Lewis get the TD, did Cincinnati make the right move?  Should Pitt have counteracted it by kneeling at the one like Brian Westbrook famously did in 2007?

By allowing Pitt to score, Cincinnati maintained both their timeouts and 1:36 on the clock.  If Lewis had kneeled at the one yard line and then the Panthers took two knees, they would have forced Cincinnati to burn both their remaining timeouts and would have reached 4th down on the one yard line with roughly 0:50 remaining (1:36 on first down, 1:33 on second down, 1:30 on third down, and then a 40 second run-off).  If they opted for the field goal and made the chip-shot—not necessarily a given considering they missed an extra-point—that would have given Cincinnati the ball with under 50 seconds, down by three with no timeouts.  So which situation is better?

Unfortunately, the data for college football is not as readily available as it is for the NFL, but using Brian Burke’s terrific site, Advanced NFL Stats, we can come up with some numbers to start our discussion.  Assuming they start on their own 20, the NFL numbers indicate that Cincinnati would have a .07 chance of winning if down by three with 50 seconds remaining; down by six with 1:36 remaining, the chance of winning would be .19.  However, this is a little too nice to the Madden strategy since they should have assumed the extra point would be good.  If they were down by 7 with 1:36 remaining, the chance of victory drops to .06.  This is curious since it should be roughly 50% of the chance of victory if down by six (both require a touchdown, one gets a win the other goes to overtime).  These projections are for the NFL and timeouts are not a factor.  Adding the timeout advantage to the Madden strategy would make it a better bet.  Yes, touchdowns are tough to come by, but as Les Miles discovered a couple weeks ago, field goals are tough without timeouts.

I would take my chances with the Madden strategy (or kneel if I were Pitt).  1:36 and two timeouts with an explosive offense like Cincinnati seems better than just 50 seconds and no timeouts, even though the latter situation requires just a field goal.

One other complicating factor is the weather.  The snow was swirling and both teams had already missed extra points (Pitt with a botched snap/hold and Cincinnati with a kick off an upright).

An advantage to Pitt’s play—calling it a strategy may be a bit strong since it may have been instinct alone that led Lewis into the end-zone—is that it (should have) made a regulation loss very unlikely.  If they had run the clock and taken a field gold, they could have lost to a Cincinnati touchdown.  Ultimately, missing the extra point meant that this very situation did happen, however that occurrence was very unlikely.  Since coaches are generally risk averse, it is likely most would have decided to make exactly the choice that Lewis did by running for the touchdown.

Few players have the wherewithal and self-control to make the decision to not score an easy touchdown.  In this case, the decision would not have been unequivocally correct.  In the case of Maurice Jones-Drew’s kneel-down this year, I saw an ESPN pundit claim it was a bad choice because (to paraphrase): you should score whenever possible and let the defense handle the rest.  Brilliant.

If there is anything we stat people have learned from the Belichick 4th down debate, it is that unsuccessful unconventional decisions are treated with extreme skepticism, even if the numbers support the decision. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and running back Dion Lewis should feel lucky that they lost in the conventional manner rather than an unorthodox way.  If Pitt had lost after a kneel-down, the press would have skewered Pitt’s mustachioed maestro.  For Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, it was a good and gutsy decision…the type of decision they enjoy in South Bend.  There’s also a very large chance I am giving Kelly too much credit and the easy touchdown was just a result of a poor defense that allowed 36 points to a 3-9 Illinois team last week.

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  • I think the .06 comes from a the chance of the touchdown and then the chance of winning in OT – so 1/3 of .19 seems right.

    I do think Kelly definitely let the score. The other part of the analysis that I think is missing though is that UC might have stopped them on 2nd down, but not 3rd down, thus still being down 7 (or 6) and with less time on the clock or one less timeout. That would have been a really bad probability and possibility a likely outcome.

  • If there is a .19 chance of winning when down by 6, that essentially means there’s a .19 chance of scoring a touchdown. Given that you score a touchdown, you’re roughly 50/50 to win the game (assuming there is a negligible amount of time left on the clock so they can’t score before overtime). This would mean the odds should be more like .09, which is a pretty huge difference (50% larger than .06).

    Maybe it is impacted by the fact that a lot of teams down by 7 score touchdowns and foolishly go for two, which gives them less than a 50% chance of winning. Still, this seems unlikely. I’m a little skeptical of the result.

    I do agree that there are tons of other situations to analyze (Pitt not getting the first, Pitt kneeling at the one and then getting a TD the next play, etc). Overall, I think Pitt probably could have helped its case by not scoring exactly when it did.

  • In the Georgia Tech-Clemson game, we just saw another instance where the team should have kneeled at the one. Down by one, with 1:20 left in the game GT ran for a 15 yard touchdown. Ultimately, they won the game after stopping Clemson’s drive, but if they had taken the knee and the chip-shot field goal (on the pristine Tampa turf), they would have made things easier for themselves.

    After the game, GT coach Paul Johnson said something to the extent of “you can’t stop guys from scoring…39 is more than 34 and that’s all that matters.”

  • I was there, and I was hoping for a westbrook. Simply downing it would have wasted 20+ seconds, and then you have 3 plays from the 1 yard line to run it in. At that point you try to get it in, but dont really care if you do or not.

  • Cincinnati this season is pretty much a “score-a-minute” team. The time of possession to score ratio clearly exemplifies this point. Even with :50 seconds left, the statistics do not account for the highly potent offense that was still able to score in about a minute on the subsequent drive without using its timeouts. UC was given the ball back at about 1:30, and scored with slightly over :30 remaining. I’d also like to take a small chance to say, as a UC fan, that Pittsburgh and Wannstedt played the physical and up front football that they are heralded for, and deserve a ton of credit for the passion and ability that they showed, on both sides of the ball. It was a terrific game.

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