September 21, 2010
USC has scored 14 touchdowns through its first three games, and has trailed for about eight seconds en route to a 3-0 start. At no point have the Trojans found themselves in comeback mode, or sweating out a nailbiter in the final minutes. But they have opted to go for two after exactly half of those tries, all of them in random circumstances that offer no obvious incentive for deviating from a run-of-the-mill extra point kick, and they have not been very good: SC has converted just two of seven of its two-point tries, including an 0-for-3 effort Saturday at Minnesota, to the amusement of gamblers who took the Trojans to cover an 11.5-point spread in an eventual 11-point win.
But Lane Kiffin doesn't care about the bookies or the haters or the angry coaches on the other sideline. He's just going to keep on going for it whenever the mood (or the right defense) strikes:
Despite failing to convert five of seven two-point conversions this season, USC coach Lane Kiffin said he will not change his philosophy during games.
"If you make it, you're ahead of things and in a two-score game right away," Kiffin said.
"You have a big play and it doesn't work but if you have a big play and it works, it's even better (than a regular touchdown). We'll continue to look at things. We're showing a lot of stuff (to opponents) which is good. We'll make other people practice it."
If nothing else, it gives America's most hyped backup quarterback, senior Mitch Mustain, something to do: As the holder on extra points, Mustain sometimes makes the call to go for two based on how the defense reacts to the Trojans' "swinging gate" gate formation, which allows to either run a two-man option with the kicker, throw it to a receiver lined up alone on one sideline, flip it out to another receiver lined up behind the offensive line on the opposite sideline or summon the line in to block for a conventional PAT. You might have done something like this in high school, and if it can work there, the arithmetic doesn't change a the next level.
The arithmetic behind the decision to go for two is a little dicier. There aren't many definitive studies on two-point conversion efficiency – most likely because tweedy research-y types tend to focus on the NFL, which just adopted the two-point option in 1995 and hasn't exactly gone out of its way to contribute to sample size – and those that have do seem to advocate more aggression; an academic writing for Football Outsiders in 2003 concluded that pro teams should "be able to score more points and win more games by going for two every time," assuming a roughly 50-percent success rate (the NFL success rate has fluctuated from year to year – it was just 45 percent in 2009, down from 60 percent in 2006 – but has consistently trended around 50 percent over time) and a missed PAT or two over the course of a season. But it's a marginal advantage at best: As a strategy, if you expect to convert exactly half of your two-point conversions, the cumulative result is exactly the same as if you expect to convert every PAT kick.
For a two-point-heavy plan to make any sense in the big picture, then, you have to expect to convert better than half the time over an entire season, and still be willing to accept that a cluster of failures is as likely to cost you a close game the conventional approach would have won as a cluster of successes is to provide a winning edge. Of course, Kiffin is ever the optimist on this point: If he's expecting to succeed more than he fails overall, and the 2-of-7 tally hasn't cost him a game so far, that can only mean the odds are about to turn in the Trojans' favor, just in time for the start of the Pac-10 slate. If you're past the point where a few points here and there against the rest of the conference seem irrelevant, you might as well have a plan to pick up the slack.
And really, if you're going to come out even in the end, anyway, you might as well choose the more interesting route to get there.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.