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The Math Behind Josh Heupel’s Key 4th Down Decisions

How Heupel’s decisions against Tulane show his growth as a head coach

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NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
UCF Head Coach Josh Heupel
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As a second-year head coach, Josh Heupel is still fairly new to the extra responsibilities that come with being a head coach. One of the biggest things that comes with this is decision making. Do I go for it? Or do I kick the field goal or punt?

Against Tulane on Saturday, I felt Heupel hinted at improving in this area. Some may say going for it on 4th downs is a lot of times “gutsy”, but in reality, it’s simply just smart.

Overall, the goal is to win, so your decision making should revolve around what maximizes your opportunity to do that.

Analytics, as we like to call it, can help tremendously on 4th down decisions. Now it shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all, but the numbers should be a heavy factor. You can be contrary to the numbers at times, especially when considering other factors such as weather and in-game feel.

Also, you don’t want to let one decision impact others in similar circumstances. I like to say the process is greater than the results. If you continue to make the right decisions, it’s going to pan out. It’s not fair to base whether a decision is right off one play where you failed on 4th down. Field goals are definitely not automatic and neither is going for it.

For example, the Ravens have gained a clear advantage over most NFL teams strictly off their decision making and being aggressive on 4th down. They have a 25-year-old economics major who helps guide Jim Harbaugh through every situation.

Let’s break down the math behind Heupel’s 4th down decisions in the UCF Knights’ game against Tulane to see if he made the +EV decision to go for it.

I’ll start with the “gutsy” ones because it might get a little repetitive.

The key things I use for this are EPA (Expected Points Added), conversion %, field goal make %, and field position. I’ll also add in the win probability % for a few.

This is the basic formula I’ll use:

(Conversion % * EPA) + ((1-Conversion %) * - EPA of new FP) = Expected Points

Our first situation: 4th and 4 from opponents’ 23, up by 10 with 5:20 left.

This call was my favorite from the Tulane game and the one that hints at a massive improvement from Heupel. I say this because it reminded me of the 4th and 7 from Pitt’s 18 that UCF faced up by 3 earlier in the season. Heupel kicked a FG there, and Pitt obviously came down and scored a TD to win.

Key numbers:

  • Field Goals from the 23 yard line in 2019: 39/59 (66.1%)
  • 4th and 4’s from 2018 and 2019: 150/337 (44.51%)
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from own 25 (factoring ensuing kick off) down 13 in 4th quarter: 0.178774766
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Own 21 (Missed FG/Failed 4th Down) down 10 in 4th Quarter: 0.021555165
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Opp 19 up 10 in 4th quarter (Successful first down gaining min yards): 4.597412778
  • Expected Value of Kicking a Field Goal:

(0.661*3-0.17877) + ((1-0.661) *-0.021555 ) = 1.9639

  • Expected Value of Going for It:

(0.4451*4.5974) + ((1-.4451) *-0.021555 ) = 2.0343

Very close call here when looking at the expected value of each.

Now UCF’s win probability (when factoring in the spread) was around 99.1% before going for it and ~99.4% after getting the first down.

I really liked this decision. With limited time left, the other team needs to steal a possession somewhere to even have a chance to win. By kicking a field goal to go up 13 (still 2 possessions) you’re giving the other team that possession they need.

Here we have a 4th and Goal from the 2. Up by a Touchdown with 2:10 left in the 3rd. Kick the field goal to make it a 2 possession game? No:

Really any 4th and 1 or 2 in opponent territory is a pretty obvious go for it from an analytics perspective. Obviously certain situations are must-kick.

I think this was a true play action pass, but it could definitely be a split zone RPO too. Regardless, a really nice design to get Roberson using split zone action with Tre legally crashing in to basically set a pick for him.

IMO Tulane actually defended it pretty well, it was just a great play.

Key numbers:

  • Field Goals from the 2 yard line in 2019: 96% (Ironically, there have only been 5 field goals kicked from the 2 yard line in 2019 according to my PBP data. Last season, Power 5 kickers were 48/50 on 17-20 yard FG’s so I’ll use that.)
  • 4th and 2’s from 2018 and 2019 inside opponents 10 (condensed field): 51/94 (54.84%)
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from own 25 (factoring ensuing kick off) down 10 in 3rd quarter: 0.209062308
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from own 20 down 7 in 3rd quarter (Missed FG): -0.02743589
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Own 25 (factoring ensuing kick off) down 14 in 3rd Quarter (After a TD): 0.045345296
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Own 2 down 7 in 3rd quarter (Failed 4th down): -1.118698835
  • Expected Value of Kicking a Field Goal:

(0.96*3-0.2091) + ((1-0.96) *-(-)0.02743589 ) = 2.6804

  • Expected Value of Going for It:

(0.5484*7-.04535) + ((1-.5484) *-(-)1.1187) = 4.3191

Pretty obvious decision here. While it may seem “gutsy” or “dumb” it’s easily the right decision. A big factor is a failed conversion leads to Tulane starting at their own 2.

The last one I’ll do is the 4th and 6 on the first drive of the game. All the remaining 4th down attempts were around Tulane’s 30 and kind of similar to this situation so I’m not going to do all of them.

This would be a 43 yard field goal. That’s Dylan Barnas’ long on the season so I think that’s important to note as all the other 4th down plays would have been longer field goals than 43 yards.

Key numbers:

  • Field Goals from the 26 yard line in 2019: 38/68 (55.88%)
  • 4th and 6’s from 2018 and 2019: 109/265 (41.13%)
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from own 25 (factoring ensuing kick off) down 3 in 1st quarter: 0.314076248
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Own 26 (Missed FG/Failed 4th Down) tied in 1st Quarter: 0.524743803
  • EPA of 1st and 10 from Opp 20 tied in 1st quarter (Successful first down gaining min yards): 4.240927667
  • Expected Value of Kicking a Field Goal:

(0.5588*3-0.3141) + ((1-0.5588) *-0.5247) = 1.2694

  • Expected Value of Going for It:

(0.4113*4.241) + ((1-.4113) *-0.5247 ) = 1.4354

Another close, but correct decision from Heupel. Wind could have also been a factor in some of the decisions to not kick the longer field goals, but anything past 45 yards and you probably have a better chance at getting a first down than making the field goal anyway.

Heupel made a lot of great decisions on 4th down versus Tulane and was rewarded by his team doing rather well in those situations. It’s hard to say his aggressiveness wasn’t a major factor in a game that had ended with a three-point margin.

EPA data thanks to @statsowar on Twitter and other data from