November 11, 2010
UConn 30, Pittsburgh 28. OK, sports fans, it's time for another exciting round of "You Make the Call!"
Your offense has the ball on its own 12-yard line with a 30-28 lead and 3:39 to play in the fourth quarter. The defense has just used the first of three timeouts. Your quarterback, who you've already tried to bench on two separate occasions this season before injuries forced him back into the lineup, completes an eight-yard pass on 3rd-and-9. You let the clock run down to 2:50, then call your first timeout. Now facing a 4th-and-1 from your own 19-yard line with a two-point lead and less than three minutes to play, do you:
a) Punt and play defense;
b) Line up like you're going for it in an effort to draw the defense offsides, then use your second timeout and punt if the defense doesn't jump;
c) Seriously, anything other than a punt risks a turnover with the ball already in prime position for the game-winning field goal. Just kick it already;
d) Are we really still debating this?
e) Spit as hard as you can and actually go for it.
If you're remotely familiar with conventional football strategy for the last 100 years, you've probably selected option a), b), c) or d). If you're Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, however, when confronted with this exact scenario tonight against Pittsburgh, you selected e), "Spit hard and go for it." (Give or take the spitting part.) And you were vindicated: Running back Jordan Todman plowed straight ahead for four yards on 4th-and-1, the Huskies proceeded to pick up two more first downs to midfield on another Todman run and an ill-timed personal foul penalty against Pitt, and the Panther offense never touched the ball again. Edsall's perfectly understandable reaction:
When Bill Belichick went for it in nearly identical circumstances last year – twice – he was raked over the coals, but certain academic types have been using statistical models for years to argue that conservative-minded coaches should be far more aggressive on fourth down. Tonight, Edsall scored one for the Bellman Equation.
In the big picture, the final score moved both teams to 5-4 for the season, but didn't knock Pitt from the driver's seat for the Big East's automatic BCS bid in January. It also means the conference still doesn't have a bowl-eligible team in mid-November, and still doesn't have a team that's been eliminated from the bowl picture. All eight teams remain mathematically alive for the Big East championship, and have a better chance now with the Panthers' first conference loss than they did this morning. Happy Thanksgiving, fellas.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.