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Roundtable: Trying to make sense of Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan

Part 1 of a heavy discussion on play calling and decision making.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA T

It was a Big Ten Conference match-up to forget for the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers, as the now-No. 6 Michigan Wolverines wore down Paul Chryst’s squad in a 38-13 loss at the Big House on Saturday night.

The offense could not get into a groove, which did not help the defense off the field when it needed to. With College Football Playoff hopes dashed for this season, the Badgers trudge on.

We modified the roundtable just a hint this week to take in this week’s thoughts, with the first part of our discussion postgame centered around the play calling/time management.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD: Who stood out positively in the lopsided loss?

Drew Hamm: Jonathan Taylor and T.J. Edwards. Next question.

Who was terrible? Oh, allow me to answer that!

[Ed. note: Uh, OK]

Paul Chryst’s play calling and cowardice on 4th down [late in the third quarter] was terrible. The officiating was terrible. The passing game was terrible. Alex Hornibrook couldn’t complete a pass and when he did hit a receiver in the hands it was probably dropped. The defense couldn’t stop the read option and it looked like they’d never been coached on stopping it. Even when Wisconsin punted when they shouldn’t have been punting it wasn’t good. Basically, nothing went right outside of Taylor and Edwards suiting up and playing.

Jake Kocorowski: I’ll answer the positives, and I’m wondering if Owen will say the same thing based on his tweeting during the game, but reserve safety Eric Burrell led the team in tackles with 11 and played with some passion. With the defensive backfield decimated by injuries now, he seemingly stepped up around the line of scrimmage. We’ll see who starts next to him next week with Scott Nelson and Reggie Pearson getting injured in the second half and the status of D’Cota Dixon for Illinois also up in the air.

Owen Riese: I thought Burrell played his ass off. He, Pearson and Rachad Wildgoose showed some serious promise tonight, and the future is blindingly bright in the defensive backfield, we’ve just got a way to get to the end of the tunnel. T.J. Edwards played well also. The offensive line and Jonathan Taylor ran the ball well.

Drew: I told a bunch of people about Jake’s Wildgoose chase joke and they all thought it was funny. That was a positive from the game too. [Jake’s note: “MICHIGAN’S GOING ON A WILDGOOSE CHASE, BUT THEY’RE NOT GONNA CATCH HIM”]

Jake: #DadJokes for the win!

Owen: Also I know this is an unpopular take but I didn’t really have that much issue with punting in opposing territory. Whenever I bring it up some account with 245 followers screams at me about the probability that you’ll convert like there isn’t also the possibility that you don’t and you give the other team the ball at midfield. Football is contextual and math is objective, that is my take.

I understand fans have this warped perception of football and offense from fantasy football and Madden and numbers tell them to go for it, but I promise Paul Chryst is a smarter coach than anyone on Twitter so I’m going to trust him and his decisions, to be honest.

This segment of the show has been brought to you by Owen’s unpopular takes.

Drew: When you punt it into the end zone and then two plays later Michigan is already back where you punted from it’s the wrong call. Also, why didn’t Wisconsin call timeout at the end of the first half before Michigan missed that field goal?

Owen: If you think your punter is going to punt into the end zone, then I agree it’s the wrong call.

Drew: Wisconsin calls timeout with 25 seconds left [in the first half], Nordin misses the field goal, Hornibrook throws a couple of incomplete passes and we don’t get a chance at a field goal ... oh wait.

The context of that punt is as follows: Wisconsin’s offense has barely moved the ball at all and is down 21-7; they need to gain two yards and have the leading rusher in the country with one of the best offensive lines in the country. Their defense is tired from being on the field for so long due to the offense being ineffectual; they are in enemy territory and the possibility of a touchback on the punt seems higher than average; it’s also a cowardly call and shows the coaching staff has no faith in the offense (which might be fair).

Should Wisconsin go for it on every fourth down always? Eh, I’m open to trying it but probably not. Should they have gone for it on that fourth down in that situation? Yes, without a doubt.

Owen: So you’re willing to risk putting that tired defense on the field near midfield if you don’t convert it? There’s no guarantee you convert it. Should you have faith in going for it and in your offensive linemen and running back? Sure. That doesn’t make it the smart thing to do. I could have faith that Wisconsin could get it on a 4th-and-2 on their own 5. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go for it.

The people who preach being aggressive and more reckless in general never have anything on the line.

Drew: I think Wisconsin should try to win and not hope to lose by less.

Owen: Trying to win and failing = losing by more

Drew: They punted and still gave up points. Why not take a chance at not doing that if it’s just going to happen anyways.

In far more important news!

Owen: Will they have the Wazzu flag at the Wazzu College GameDay?

Drew: I hope everyone has one!

Bob Wiedenhoeft: The defense played pretty well, just ran out of steam. They really lacked the firepower to keep up for four quarters thanks to injuries, late scratches, players leaving, targeting suspension, and so on.

Tyler Hunt: For the good: Not much. I know the score was bad but I liked the young guys getting a crack at it. They may get torched at times, but hopefully this playing time comes in handy down the road. The more experience, hopefully the better they get. I know I’m stretching for some sort of positive, but when you get beat that soundly it’s hard to find much.

THE BAD: OK, a lot went wrong. Drew and Owen discussed some already but what else did everyone see?

Bob: The bad: Drew is 100 percent correct here in his critique of the decision to punt. I want to couch my answer in the context that I’m irrationally emotional about this decision.

Owen is probably the best football mind on our writing staff. He knows scheme, matchups, and the fine details of football way beyond my understanding. He sees things regarding personnel that fly over my head. His tactical knowledge is excellent.

However, he fundamentally misunderstands what probability is (and game theory) in his answer and overestimates the risk in accordance with his confirmation bias. Statistics can help make sense of larger strategic decisions. Yes, statisticians may not understand the details of a specific play, but their data encapsulates the decisions of thousands of experts and describes which decision wins out more times than not.

So, if the numbers say you are going to, on average, score more points going for it than punting, you should. Here is my sketch of the outcome chart. I simplified it a little bit because I’m making a more general point.

Bob’s breakdown

Decision Conditional probability success Conditional expected points success Conditional probability failure Conditional expected points failure Expected Outcome
Decision Conditional probability success Conditional expected points success Conditional probability failure Conditional expected points failure Expected Outcome
Punt 75% (Downed at 10 yard line) 0.25 25% (Downed at 20 yard line) -0.25 .125 points Michigan
Go for it 45% (UW 1st and 10 at the Mich 40 yard line) 2.5 55% (Mich 1st and 10 at the Mich 40 yard line) -1.25 .4375 points Wisconsin

Now, if you don’t know what an expected outcome is in statistics, here is the first video on YouTube that you could have searched on your own that explains it fairly well:

Wisconsin is not the better team in this matchup, however, the better team does not always win. What you want to do as the worse team is increase the variance in the possible outcomes. Higher risk/higher reward strategic decisions give you hope. Sure, a low risk/low reward situation might keep the game static, but when you are already down AND the worse team, you need to shake things up.

Yes, going for it carries higher risk. However, that risk is well worth the reward! On average, the decision of going for it alone gives Wisconsin an extra half point. Granted, if you just want to minimize risk and don’t care about reward, you would punt. The decision to go for it also carries more variance, so it has the ability to swing the direction of the game. Punting does not do this.

I could go into a lesson on game theory, but that’s not the point. What is concerning (and Owen is NOT this person at all, although you hear them in the media all the time) is the folks that say “math is confusing/complicated, I don’t understand it, therefore it is wrong.” You hear this with pro football focus or baseball advanced analytics like WAR. These people are one step short of anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers.

To Owen’s credit, tactics do influence strategy. In general, Wisconsin should be able to get 2-3 yards 45-percent plus of the time in third and fourth down situations (if not, then they’re going to lose anyway). Chryst may have seen something to indicate that the probability of getting 2-3 yards in that specific moment was more like 20 percent, which would indicate punting is the correct move. However, in the absence of that tactical information, Chryst’s strategic decision was wrong.

**Sources used for the probabilities and scoring expectations:

Tyler: The bad: Well... pretty much everything went poorly. Look I love Paul Chryst as much as my own kin but the decision to punt on the 4th-and-2 was really a backbreaker. It felt like we just waved the white flag as soon as we booted it away. Last year, fine, because the defense was excellent. This year, no way, this team just isn’t built to be able to give away opportunities.