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Syracuse Football: Stats Say Shafer Was Right On Final Pitt Drive

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Should the Orange have let Pitt waltz into the end zone in order to get the ball back at the end of the game? The numbers suggest it probably wouldn't have helped.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Following Saturday's game, there was some discussion around here that maybe Syracuse should have let Pittsburgh into the end zone as a way to get the ball back for one last drive for the tie.

Scott Shafer didn't share those thoughts at all.

"I just don't feel like throwing in the towel is the way to teach young people how to live their lives through football," Shafer said. "That's teaching them how to quit."

Now, that quote is a little dramatic. Did anyone think Bill Belichick was teaching his team to quit when he told them to let Ahmad Bradshaw into the end zone at the end of Super Bowl XLVI?

The ultimate question is, do you have a better chance of winning by trying to block a field goal or hope they miss? Or do you have a better chance of winning by driving most likely 75 yards for a touchdown to tie and send it to overtime.

Fortunately, we have somewhat of a way of finding out.

Using a win probability calculator I tried to figure out the projected odds of winning in each scenario. Before we dive in, I have to preface that there are some major flaws to this, and this is more of a guide than a final right or wrong. For example, there is nowhere to enter timeouts, and the probabilities are based on NFL not NCAA, which affects kickers and overtime rules. So take this with a huge grain of salt potatoes.

That being said, this can be fun. I started with the decision following the Syracuse timeout with 1:50 remaining and Pitt facing 3rd and 1 at the Syracuse 18-yard line. The timeout was the first real chance for SU to order a strategy like this.

Playing it Out - 17% win probability for Syracuse

Think about that 17% chance of winning. There are several ways the Orange could have still won the game in this situation:

  1. Make a stop and force a field goal with about 1:45 left. Need to only drive for a field goal to tie, which is much easier than a touchdown.
  2. Make a stop and block the field goal or have Pitt miss and now you only need a field goal to win.
  3. They run out the clock (like they did) but still miss or have the field goal blocked (like they did not)

Letting Pitt Score - 8% win probability for Syracuse

If Pittsburgh scores and makes the extra point, with the ensuing kickoff and return, Syracuse is probably looking at the ball on its own 25 with about 1:30 remaining. The win probability shrinks almost in half because going 75 yards in such a short period of time is extremely difficult. Also, remember the touchdown only sends you to overtime, where you have about a 50% chance of winning, so that's factored in as well.

Letting them in on future plays

Maybe you try to get the 3rd down stop, but once that failed, you let them score. This is where the model is really crude because of the lack of timeouts, but here's how the win probabilities would likely shake out based on the plays Pitt actually ran.

1st and 10 on the 17 - 13%

2nd and 6 on the 13 - 8%

3rd and 6 on the 13 - 6%

1st and goal on the 6 - 2%

Remember, that with each of these additional plays, the win probability for the Syracuse touchdown probably goes down as well, as there would be less time remaining on the clock when the Orange got the ball back.

It's far from an exact science, but I think the numbers show Shafer probably made the right decision, even though it didn't work out for him. When you think about the potential for a stop, for a fumble, for a blocked kick, for a missed kick, there are more ways to win by playing it out than by asking your offense - which couldn't do much in the second half - to go 75 yards in very limited time.