Should Pitt Have Pulled a Westbrook? Does Brian Kelly Play Madden?

Today’s de facto Big East Championship between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati provides us here at HSAC another chance to analyze some interesting late game coaching strategy.  Today, we will take a look at Cincinnati’s Madden-like decision to (seemingly) lie down on defense at the end of Pitt’s penultimate drive.

Cincinnati trailed most of the game, down 31-10 in the first half. 
With a stout second half defense and the awakening of their offense,
the Bearcats tied the score at 38 on a rushing touchdown and two-point
conversion in the fourth quarter.  Pitt took the ball with 5:46 at
their own 33.  Using a combination of clock eating runs, a key pass,
and a costly Cincinnati personal foul, Pitt brought the ball to the
Cincinnati 29 with 2:44.  Cincinnati used their first timeout to stop
the clock on 3rd and 9.  The Panthers picked up a key first down to keep their drive going downfield.  On 1st and 10 at the Cincinnati 13, the Panthers ran the ball to the Cincinnati 5.

On 2nd and 2, the Bearcats defense seemingly lied down
and let Dion Lewis run into the end-zone, practically untouched.  With
the touchdown and botched extra point, the Panthers took a 44-38 lead
with 1:36 remaining and the Bearcats poised to receive the ball with
two timeouts.  Assuming they meant to allow Lewis get the TD, did
Cincinnati make the right move?  Should Pitt have counteracted it by
kneeling at the one like Brian Westbrook famously did in 2007?

By allowing Pitt to score, Cincinnati maintained both their timeouts
and 1:36 on the clock.  If Lewis had kneeled at the one yard line and
then the Panthers took two knees, they would have forced Cincinnati to
burn both their remaining timeouts and would have reached 4th
down on the one yard line with roughly 0:50 remaining (1:36 on first
down, 1:33 on second down, 1:30 on third down, and then a 40 second
run-off).  If they opted for the field goal and made the chip-shot—not
necessarily a given considering they missed an extra-point—that would
have given Cincinnati the ball with under 50 seconds, down by three
with no timeouts.  So which situation is better?

Unfortunately, the data for college football is not as readily
available as it is for the NFL, but using Brian Burke’s terrific site, Advanced NFL Stats,
we can come up with some numbers to start our discussion.  Assuming
they start on their own 20, the NFL numbers indicate that Cincinnati
would have a .07 chance of winning if down by three with 50 seconds
remaining; down by six with 1:36 remaining, the chance of winning would
be .19.  However, this is a little too nice to the Madden strategy
since they should have assumed the extra point would be good.  If they
were down by 7 with 1:36 remaining, the chance of victory drops to
.06.  This is curious since it should be roughly 50% of the chance of
victory if down by six (both require a touchdown, one gets a win the
other goes to overtime).  These projections are for the NFL and
timeouts are not a factor.  Adding the timeout advantage to the Madden
strategy would make it a better bet.  Yes, touchdowns are tough to come
by, but as Les Miles discovered a couple weeks ago, field goals are
tough without timeouts.

I would take my chances with the Madden strategy (or kneel if I were
Pitt).  1:36 and two timeouts with an explosive offense like Cincinnati
seems better than just 50 seconds and no timeouts, even though the
latter situation requires just a field goal.

One other complicating factor is the weather.  The snow was swirling
and both teams had already missed extra points (Pitt with a botched
snap/hold and Cincinnati with a kick off an upright).

An advantage to Pitt’s play—calling it a strategy may be a bit
strong since it may have been instinct alone that led Lewis into the
end-zone—is that it (should have) made a regulation loss very
unlikely.  If they had run the clock and taken a field gold, they could
have lost to a Cincinnati touchdown.  Ultimately, missing the extra
point meant that this very situation did happen, however that
occurrence was very unlikely.  Since coaches are generally risk averse, it is likely most would have decided to make exactly the choice that Lewis did by running for the touchdown.

Few players have the wherewithal and self-control to make the decision
to not score an easy touchdown.  In this case, the decision would not
have been unequivocally correct.  In the case of Maurice Jones-Drew’s
kneel-down this year, I saw an ESPN pundit claim it was a bad choice
because (to paraphrase): you should score whenever possible and let the
defense handle the rest.  Brilliant.

If there is anything we stat people have learned from the Belichick 4th down debate,
it is that unsuccessful unconventional decisions are treated with
extreme skepticism, even if the numbers support the decision. Pitt
coach Dave Wannstedt and running back Dion Lewis should feel lucky that
they lost in the conventional manner rather than an unorthodox way.  If
Pitt had lost after a kneel-down, the press would have skewered Pitt's mustachioed maestro
For Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, it was a good and gutsy decision…the
type of decision they enjoy in South Bend.  There's also a very large
chance I am giving Kelly too much credit and the easy touchdown was
just a result of a poor defense that allowed 36 points to a 3-9
Illinois team last week.