Breaking down Illinois football’s fourth-down decisions

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Kicker Blake Hayes punts the ball during a game. The Daily Illini sports staff breaks down Illinois football’s fourth-down decisions.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

A week ago, the Illinois football team was in a rut. The Illini were on a four-game losing streak with few reasons for optimism despite having brought Bret Bielema, the new head coach, in the offseason who was supposed to turn around an underperforming Illinois program.

One week later, the team’s performance still lends itself to skepticism, but Illinois did win a football game! While a victory over a weaker opponent like Charlotte might not signify a full-scale turnaround, Bielema did clearly make some adjustments, with an apparent one being his fourth down decision-making. With that in mind, I’m going to look at the impactful fourth-down calls Bielema made this week and compare them to those during the losing streak.

Fourth quarter vs Charlotte: fourth-and-3, up 24-14

The Illini went for it on fourth-and-3 at the Charlotte 38 with 1:20 remaining in the game. The play resulted in a Brandon Peters rush for eight yards to earn the first down that ultimately sealed the win for the Illini.

Illinois had nearly clinched the game at this point, but this is the kind of play-calling that shows faith in the offense to control the team’s destiny. Illinois could have gone for the long field goal or punted, but instead opted to put the ball in a struggling Brandon Peters’ hands. Peters had yet another mediocre game, but the coaching staff putting their trust in the quarterback may be important as the Illini embark on their season’s second half. In his weekly pregame press conference, Bielema didn’t commit to Peters as the starter heading into the weekend, so I’m sure the opportunity to win the game for Illinois felt good for the veteran.

The two most impactful fourth-down calls of the game had one thing in common: Illinois went for it. In previous weeks, the Illini had opted to punt on fourth-and-short situations in close games. While many other factors contributed to the win (like Chase Brown’s superhuman performance), aggressive calls on fourth down were a breath of fresh air. Where the Illini had played to not lose in previous weeks, they finally played to win on Saturday.

Second quarter vs Charlotte: fourth-and-2, down 7-3

Illinois elected for a run-play with Chase Brown on fourth-and-2 on the Charlotte 25. The play worked; Brown gained 13 yards for the first down, and Illinois ultimately went on to score a touchdown on the drive.

This might seem more like a more obvious call looking back because Brown went to have a historic 257-yard game, but Illinois had struggled to get much going offensively at this point. The Illini were well within field goal range, but given that they were down four, the three points might not have been consequential. The Illini had experienced mixed success on running plays up to this point, so given they had a reasonable chance of converting the call makes sense.

Fourth quarter vs Purdue, fourth-and-2, up 9-6 

Illinois opted to punt on fourth-and-2 on the Purdue 34 with 9:33 remaining. Punter Blake Hayes executed the play to perfection, pinning Purdue at its own 6-yard line. But, the Boilermakers proceeded to march down the field for a touchdown that ultimately won them the game.

This is likely the most controversial fourth-down decision of Bielema’s tenure at Illinois. Running back Josh McCray was in the midst of his best game of his Illinois career, and the game was a low-scoring barnburner in which any possession could have made the difference. If the Illini had gone on to win the game, we wouldn’t even be discussing fourth-down decision-making, but here we are.

While it would be easy to discredit Bielema for the call given the game’s result, there was a strong argument for punting. Blake Hayes is in contention for best punter in college football, so ball placement wouldn’t be an issue, and the defense had been stellar up until that point, so it seemed there was a good chance Illinois would get the ball back without Purdue scoring.

Ultimately, the decision seemed to reflect a lack of trust in the offense. Illinois could have gone for the long field goal, which kicker James McCourt has shown the ability to make, or for the first down, but instead they played to not lose, which cost them the game.

Fourth quarter vs UTSA, fourth-and-3, down 37-30

The Illini elected to go for it on fourth-and-3 with roughly a minute left. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski ended up completing a pass to Isaiah Williams for four yards to earn the first down.

Illinois didn’t have much of a choice here. They found themselves in a shootout with the ball at the end of the game, and while they converted the down here, they couldn’t find the end zone in time and lost the game.

Bielema has been asked extensively about his fourth-down decision-making after many critics found themselves dissatisfied after his choice to punt against Purdue. His response has remained consistent; he believes it’s only worth going for it on fourth down if there is an 80-90% chance of success. He’s cited a willingness to go for it on the biggest stage in the past, including a fourth-and-6 attempt that was converted during the Big Ten Championship Game in 2011 when he was coaching at Wisconsin.

Regardless of how Bielema personally feels, the results are out there. Being aggressive on fourth down doesn’t guarantee wins, but when Illinois has gone for it, good things have tended to follow.

At the end of the day, Illinois is only beyond its losing streak thanks to a home win over an opponent it was expected to beat. With Wisconsin coming to town this weekend, tough fourth-down calls will almost inevitably follow. When that time comes, all eyes will be on the Illinois coaching staff.

@WesHollenberg

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