Fourth Down Academy: The Bad Decisions

A "bad" coaching decision can emerge in any situation, but the severity of its consequences will differ to a considerable extent. We continue our look at coaching decisions from the past season, examining the situations when human beings just didn't hit the mark. It happens... even to Ken Niumatalolo.


Troy Calhoun, Air Force: at San Diego State, Nov. 10 -
On the first drive of the game, Air Force faced a fourth and two at the Aztecs' 4-yard line. Calhoun chose to kick a field goal, just as he had done in the Sept. 8 visit to the University of Michigan. The field goal was good, but Air Force lost an early chance to send a message. The Falcons never got as close to the goal line until the final minute of regulation, when trailing by a 28-3 margin.

Rich Ellerson, Army: vs. Kent State, Oct. 13 - With Army trailing 17-0 late in the third quarter, the Black Knights faced a fourth and four at the Kent State 20. Since Army did need three scores, one could say that kicking a field goal was reasonable. However, an Army field goal with a few minutes left in the third quarter made sense only if the Black Knights could have managed to shut out Kent State the rest of the way. Kicking a field goal when trailing by 10 points, not 17, would have made a lot more sense in this situation. Kicking a late-third quarter field goal when getting shut out – even if the scoreboard margin is at least three scores – is something that several coaches, notably former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, have been known to do. There's nothing enlightened about such an approach – when you trail by a large margin late in the third quarter, you need to hang up sevens and have passed the point where nickel-and-diming for a field goal matters. A two-score deficit is different; a three- or four-score deficit demands aggressiveness on fourth downs.

Here's the kicker (so to speak): When Kent State scored a touchdown on its next possession after Army's field goal, the game – at 24-3 – was essentially over.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy: at Central Michigan, Oct. 12 - Navy had established a 14-3 lead in this game based on multiple decisions to go for a first down, but in this situation, the Mids – leading by 11 late in the second quarter – opted for a field goal on fourth and one at the Central Michigan 20. The three points felt like a reprieve for the Chippewas, who proceeded to score the next 10 points and give the Midshipmen a minor scare. Niumatalolo's decision gave Central Michigan an opening in this contest.

Here's an interesting and quite relevant postscript to Niumatalolo's bad move: In the third quarter, with Navy leading by a 17-13 score, the Mids faced a fourth and one at the Central Michigan 10. A field goal would have possessed some value, pushing Navy's lead to seven points. However, Niumatalolo decided to trust his offense. The Midshipmen converted the first down and later scored a touchdown to reclaim an 11-point lead and total command of the proceedings.

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