Fourth Down Academy: The Lucky Decisions

The final installment in this four-part series makes a debatable but striking claim: Air Force was profoundly - almost empirically - luckless on fourth downs in 2012. A painstaking attempt to identify a lucky fourth-down decision brought forth no such moments for the Falcons. They hope their luck will change during the 2013 football season.


If an "unlucky decision," as talked about last week, is a smart decision that does not lead to a positive outcome, a "lucky" decision is a questionable – if not poor – choice that is nevertheless accompanied by an optimal result. The presence of luck, which ripples through an athletic contest and is not confined to the present moment, demands that the next two possessions following the decision should be factored into this overall assessment. This isn't an eternally true statement, but it's generally more true than not: Bad luck is more immediate in its effect on a game, while good luck often takes more time to emerge. "Lucky" decisions sometimes don't get revealed as "lucky" until a few minutes or sequences after the fact.

SERVICE ACADEMY COACHING: THE LUCKIEST FOURTH-DOWN DECISIONS OF 2012

Troy Calhoun, Air Force: NONE
You might think that for a series or concept such as this one, every listing needs to be filled. However, a full overview of Calhoun's fourth-down decisions during the 2012 season reveals that he (and his team) never got a break in a single instance. This helps illustrate why the Falcons finished with a disappointing 6-7 record. You might have a quibble with one or two situations, but there was no offensive fourth down in which Air Force clearly received a massive gift last year.

Could a coach and team really go throughout a season without catching at least SOME fourth-down luck? The question is a legitimate one, so it needs to be answered in depth. One might say that Calhoun was unwise to fake a kick on fourth and eight from the New Mexico 32 in the second quarter of last season's game against the Lobos. (UNM led by a 10-7 score at the time.) Given that the play failed and that Air Force eventually won the game, it could be argued that Calhoun got lucky – it's possible to claim that Calhoun made a bad decision but did not suffer from it. Yet, when one realizes how dreadful the Falcons' placekicking was in 2012, it's hard to say that Calhoun made a fundamentally flawed decision to go for a first down at the opponent's 32. "Punt, field goal, or go for it" is always a tricky choice for a coach when his team is between the 32- and 37-yard lines with a subpar kicker. Calhoun probably made the right call, so his choice should not be seen as one that was kissed by luck.

Let's take this point in a slightly different direction and underscore the extent to which Air Force couldn't catch a break in 2012: Air Force converted SIX fourth downs (in nine tries) against San Diego State, two on one drive. On the five drives in which AFA converted at least one fourth down, the Falcons wound up with these outcomes: failed fourth down (ironic, that); missed field goal; fumble; fumble; interception. Air Force spent much of that game in San Diego converting fourth downs… and then making massive mistakes just a few plays later. That's the way 2012 went for Calhoun and his crew.

Rich Ellerson, Army: vs. Air Force, Nov. 3 - With Army leading by a 10-7 count in the second quarter, the Black Knights faced a fourth and six at the Air Force 36. Lacking a strong kicking game, Ellerson nevertheless sent his field goal team onto the gridiron. The 53-yard field goal was missed, but Army's defense quickly answered with an interception that set up a touchdown, giving the Brave Old Army Team a 17-7 lead. That's how luck visits a coach and a team.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy: vs. Indiana, Oct. 20 - Late in the second quarter, with Navy trailing by a 17-7 margin, the Midshipmen arrived at a fourth and two at the Indiana 42. This was a natural time in the game – given the score and the spot on the field – to get two yards and put pressure on Indiana's defense. However, Navy opted to take a delay of game penalty and then punt. The strategy flew in the face of "playing to win," but when the Midshipmen produced a pick-six on Indiana's following possession, the poor decision turned into a massive break for Niumatalolo. Navy has managed to harness good fortune in this fashion, more than the other academies over the past several seasons, 2011 excepted.

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