Syracuse Orange fans have been clamoring for years for a coach willing to roll the dice a bit more in situations like fourth down. It doesn’t always make sense to throw caution to the wind and go for it, but Doug Marrone and Scott Shafer could best be described as “traditionalists” when it came to fourth down situations, often punting at times when everyone else thought going for it might inspire momentum.
There has been a groundswell of analysis in recent years that going for it regularly on fourth down actually makes more sense than punting, even when you fail.
Some would say it’s a difference in how the traditional coach sees football and how a modern coach sees football.
Dino Babers is a modern football coach. As such, he seems to have a forward-thinking sensibility when it comes to fourth down. Syracuse.com compared Babers to his predecessor and found that he was going for it on fourth down almost twice as much as Shafer did last year. Babers was also much more likely to go for it in short yardage situations. What’s really interesting that Syracuse usually only went for it in moments of desperation while Bowling Green would go for it in an attempt to pull away from an opponent they were already beating.
We saw this shift in strategy Friday night when SU went for it on fourth down three different times, including a 4th-and-1 from Syracuse’s own 26-yard-line with the game still very much undecided. It was the kind of decision that would have given Babers’ predecessors the meat sweats for days and he seemed to pull the trigger without even considering otherwise. Not only did SU go for it, but they passed instead of taking the traditional power-run option. And they converted.
As Chris Carlson put it, “instead of a coach who think stats are for losers, it's nice to have one the math department would approve of.”
Babers spoke about his fourth down philosophy after the game as well:
“We will do whatever we think we think we need to do to win. And on that note, going down the road, fourth down – if we have to go for it, we have to go for it. And we have to score touchdowns, we can’t kick field goals all the time. If we go for it for four times and we don’t make it, then you guys get to be ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacks’ and talk about how bad we are. But I’m already telling you after our first game that we are going to do those things, because we’re not playing to be close, we’re playing to win. And if winning means we can’t kick field goals and have to go for it every single time, then we will – regardless of the score.”
He’s right. There is probably going to be some time in the future when Syracuse goes for it on fourth and doesn’t get it. It might lead to an opponent scoring or kill the momentum. But the numbers and the odds say teams should be more aggressive on fourth down and that things will even out in your favor. Dino Babers just has the cojones to give it a shot.