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The 4th Down Playcall: Punt, Field Goal, or Go

Since 2008, only New Mexico, Baylor, Army, Oregon, Air Force, and Georgia Tech have averaged 2 or more 4th down conversion attempts per game. Georgia Tech has converted 54.8% of these attempts (102 successful attempts)! This percentage is good enough for 32nd out of 128 teams.

4th down!
4th down!
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
As the preface stats, Tech's head coach Paul Johnson supposedly likes to go for it on fourth down. However, the calling of a 4th down conversion attempt is more strategic than a "random act of a football madman" as commentators like to play it up. Also, the calling of 4th downs is not a year to year trend but more a function of CPJ's defense as CPJ only went for it 17 total times (69th in the country) in 2014. If the market needs corn, CPJ doesn't plant soybeans! Tech, under Johnson, has only gone for the 4th down conversion about 0.5 attempts per game more than the national average.

Another reason CPJ gets the a rap of "crazy 4th down coach" is that his team is frequently in 4th and manageable. In 2014, CPJ went for it 50% of the time only when Tech was at 4th down and 4 (or less). 34% of all 4th downs were 4 yards to go or less. When the distance was 4th and 5 (or greater), CPJ only went for it 8% of the time. Here is the chart breakdown by 4th down and yards to achieve a first:


The average fourth down for Tech is just over 4th and 8. The average 4th down conversion attempt was at a distance of 4th and 4. The average distance for 4th down punts or field goal attempts was 4th and 10. The crazy part about these numbers is that Tech found itself in pretty deep holes several times. Tech had 17 4th downs at 4th and 11 or greater! We only attempted to convert 2 of those and completed one.

Now, further proof to CPJ's sanity is that he has only attempted but 5 of the 17 4th down conversion attempts beyond the opponent's 39 yard line. So, out of 32 4th downs faced by Tech's offense between Tech's end zone and the opponent's 40, Tech punted 84% of the time. The opposite is true once you cross the 40, however. Below is the chart showing what CPJ called based on the distance to the opponent's end zone. So for example "1-9" equals the opponent's 1 yard line to 9 yard line while "90-99" is Tech's 1-10 yard lines.


A college punter usually boots a 40-44 yard punt so it makes sense that Tech is kicking field goals inside an opponent's 40 yard line. So, if the commentator for the Orange Bowl says, "CPJ likes to go for it on 4th down!" You should say internally, "No, you fool! He only goes for it when he has proper distance to first down and appropriate field position!"

There is risk to going for it on 4th down. Tech's five failed attempts resulted in Tech giving up 2 touchdowns and field goal or 3.4 points per opposing drive off of failed 4th downs. However, Tech's drives that featured a converted fourth down resulted in almost 5 points per drive (an average drive yields about 3 points for Tech). And Tech had two drives (one against Wofford and one against uga) that had two converted fourth downs. There's special momentum gained in converting fourth downs and conversely in failing to convert.

Mississippi State, for the record, only went for 17 4th down conversions in 2014 as well. They have been a relatively risky team going for it on 4th down 147 times since CPJ took over Tech making them 32nd nationally in total attempts to convert fourth downs. They've converted only 47% of their 4th downs in 2014 and 54.4% since 2008.