With Arizona State trailing Cal 34-27 in the fourth quarter, Sun Devils' head coach Todd Graham left his offense on the field in a fourth and one situation at the Bears' 45-yard line.
Graham put his faith in ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who called upon ASU's "Sparky" package and junior running back Kalen Ballage to move the sticks and keep the Sun Devils' comeback hopes alive.
On the fourth and one play, Ballage rushed for seven yards, and two plays later, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins found sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson for a 30-yard touchdown pass that tied the game 34-34.
The decision to go for it on fourth down was a risk, but Graham said it was a calculated one. Each week, the ASU coaching staff meets to discuss certain situations, and whether or not playing aggressively or conservatively would suit the Sun Devils.
"We have a game management meeting every week that we have everybody in and we talk through, okay, if both teams are scoring, if it's a lower scoring game, you know, how do we feel in this situation. Fourth and 18 inches is a heck of a lot different than fourth and a yard. Fourth and six inches is different than fourth and two feet. Make sense? It just depends on how you feel about those things, but you've got to play to win."
A week prior to ASU's win over Cal, Graham made the opposite decision when faced with a critical fourth down against Texas San-Antonio. Trailing 28-25 with under nine minutes to play, Graham sent his punt unit out when ASU faced a fourth and one opportunity from its own 40 yard-line.
The decision paid dividends for Graham, as ASU's defense followed up a punt from senior Matt Haack with a three-and-out against the Roadrunners.
"It also depends on going for it on fourth down, what type of game is it," Graham said. "You know what I mean? In San Antonio, it was going to be what I thought, a low scoring deal, so I thought points were going to be real critical. And I don't know, how do you know that, you kind of just go be feel."
In each of the last two weeks, Graham's fourth down decision-making has helped deliver comeback victories. Graham isn't the only Pac-12 South coach who pulled off a conference win thanks to a gutsy fourth down call, though.
Last week, Utah trailed USC 27-24 and had an opportunity to send its field goal unit out to tie the contest with less than two minutes to play. However, Utes' head coach Kyle Whittingham passed up the opportunity, left his offense on the field, and went for the win.
The Utes' converted a fourth down and one situation at the USC 23-yard line, and on the very next play, quarterback Troy Williams tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to propel Utah to a 31-27 victory.
"I think every situation is different, you know I was impressed last week with Utah," Graham said. "They could have tied the game and they went for it and I think that had a lot to do with how they were running the ball and where they were at in the game."
Whittingham's call to go for it on fourth down came a drive after USC head coach Clay Helton punted on fourth down and three from the Utah 37-yard line, a call that has drawn scorn from the Trojans' faithful.
The Utes needed a 16-play, 93-drive to cap off their comeback win, but it was Helton's decision-making, not USC's defensive lapses, that drew the most criticism after the game.
The balance of deciding how to approach fourth down situations is a delicate one, and this week, two coaches who handled their fourth downs differently last week will be pitted against one another in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
While it's impossible to forecast the decisions each coach will face Saturday, Graham said when the Sun Devils are on the Trojans' side of the field, there's only one thing on his mind.
"You just have to make sure you get points," Graham said. "If there's any doubt in your mind, you take the points. But you've got to play to win, you've got to play to your strength and what you think so it's a calculated, I don't want to say guess, but it's a calculated decision."
News and Notes
- After Thursday's practice, Graham said junior linebacker Christian Sam will not play this Saturday. Graham has missed three consecutive games with an ankle injury suffered in the team's season-opener against Northern Arizona.
- Graham said senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu will try to play Saturday against USC. Graham said the senior wants to play against the Trojans and that ASU's training staff will make sure it's safe for him to do so before he's cleared. Latu wore a large brace on his left knee at practice Thursday morning, but participated normally during warmups.
- Redshirt freshman offensive guard Steve Miller worked with the first team offensive line in place of senior right guard Stephon McCray during an 11-on-11 drill at the portion of practice open to the media Thursday.