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Fourth-and-Math for Cutcliffe's Blue Devils

You can attribute Duke's recent woes on the gridiron to a number of contributing factors--poor coaching, less talent, paltry attendance--but one tangible cause is a simply atrocious kicking game. Last year, the Blue Devils made only 3-of-11 field goals and missed some attempts that would have changed games (a late miss to lose at Navy comes to mind). The problems were so evident that former head coach Ted Roof held open tryouts for kickers in the middle of the season.

New head coach David Cutcliffe has been adamant about improving special teams and, most notably, the kicking unit, saying Sunday on the eve of Duke's first practice that he would look at five candidates, with returners Joe Surgan, Nick Maggio and freshman Paul Asack leading the pack. But he also said that if he wasn't comfortable with any of the options, he would favor an approach that Roof was forced to adopt: Going for it on fourth down.

“People think I'm kidding when I say we are going for it on fourth down if we are not a Division I-A kicking team,'' he said. “… If we are not (effective), we'll go for it more on fourth down more than you can imagine. I expect us to quickly reach greater heights in the kicking game.”

Some mathematicians, economists and professors with too much time on their hands and too large of a penchant for football have, in the past, determined that going for it on fourth down is often a more statistically sound option than punting or kicking a field goal. Coach Cutcliffe, some links to consider:

  • "GO FOR IT" TABLES: If Cutciffe doesn't want quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to wear an armband with plays, perhaps Cutcliffe should have a handy copy of this cheat sheet.
  • "FOURTH DOWN ANALYSIS MET WITH SKEPTICISM": An older piece from ESPN examining coach's responses to Prof. David Romer's assertion that going for it on fourth down makes more sense. Hint: Not all buy the proof.
  • BELLMAN EQUATION: Romer's thesis is based on this dynamic programming approach. We don't understand much more than that, but maybe you can!

We don't want to throw sabermetrics in your face, but are there any econ or math majors out there want to chip in with their own analysis? And what do you trust more: going for it on fourth down, or attempting a 40-yard field goal? That is: Are you in favor of math or instinct?

--by Ben Cohen


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