Fourth Down Academy: The Great Decisions

An examination of fourth-down coaching decisions can put a season into focus while lending context to the life of a coach as it unfolds on fall Saturdays. This is not an attempt to second-guess the three service academy coaches; "Fourth Down Academy" is an attempt to look at the challenge of coaching on a broader level.

Let's set the framework for this concept: A "great" decision can lead to a less-than-ideal result, but for the purpose of clarity, we'll confine "great" decisions to the ones that worked out for coaches. You'll see why in the coming weeks.


Troy Calhoun, Air Force: at Wyoming, Oct. 13 -
Air Force trailed, 27-21, early in the fourth quarter, and faced a fourth and one at its own 42. Calhoun went for the first down despite the fact that if Air Force failed, Wyoming would have needed only 10 to 15 yards to get into field goal range and amass a two-score (30-21) lead. Air Force should indeed welcome a fourth-and-one situation; it's what triple-option football is meant for. Calhoun trusted his team's strength, as any coach should in a critical moment. The Falcons got the first down, marched down the field for a touchdown, and escaped Laramie with a 28-27 win. This is what a great coaching decision – one that makes a difference between a win and a loss – looks like.

Rich Ellerson, Army: at Wake Forest, Sept. 22 - Late in the second quarter, Army trailed in a shootout, 21-20. The Black Knights faced a fourth and two at the Wake Forest 46. So many coaches, just before halftime, become hyperconservative and avoid any kind of risk-taking whatsoever. Ellerson, though, realized his team was immersed in a high-scoring game and needed to pursue every available opportunity to collect more points. Army went for the first down, made it, and cashed the sustained possession into a field goal.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy: vs. Florida Atlantic, Nov. 3 -
With the Midshipmen clinging to a small 14-10 lead early in the third quarter, Navy found itself in a tricky fourth-and-eight situation at the Florida Atlantic 31. A field goal was not a high-percentage play – not from that spot on the field – but Navy was too close to the end zone to punt. Niumatalolo didn't enjoy favorable odds on a fourth-and-eight play, either, but a first down – and the possibility of a touchdown a little bit later – offered more upside than a field goal or a punt. Niumatalolo went for the first down… and got a touchdown out of the deal on a 31-yard pass play. This coaching decision had a lot to do with Navy's 24-17 win over the Owls.

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