Differing levels of enthusiasm for gambling on fourth down come with different roles.
Players? Go for it. Offensive coordinator? Go for it. Head coach? Go … well … go … well …
Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian processed through each. He said initial ambition to attempt the harrowing conversion came as a player.
“You get that mentality, that competitive edge in you that you want to go for it,” Sarkisian said. “You want to be that guy at the end of the game that’s shooting the jumper.”
He continued that line of thought as the offensive coordinator at USC. Sarkisian also benefited from a head coach, Pete Carroll, who would prefer tumbling dice to stagnant ones. But when Sarkisian became a head coach last season, he had to slow the urge. There was more to assess than emotion.
Such was the case when Washington attempted a fake field goal against Arizona State earlier this year. Arizona State led 14-7, and Washington was on its opening drive of the second quarter. Washington lined up for a 48-yard field goal attempt on 4th-and-18. Sarkisian chose a run/pass option for holder and wide receiver Cody Bruns. It was stuffed.
“Field position is such a big part of making those decisions,” Sarkisian said. “If we’re on the 20-yard line in that game, I’m kicking it. But unfortunately we were outside the 30, and I just didn’t feel good about kicking field goals from that far out.”
Sarkisian went for it on fourth down five times in that game. He’s 10-for-22 this season on fourth down, a more than acceptable rate. One of those, Chris Polk’s Godly run at Cal, kept bowl hopes alive. Three out of the four times Washington went for it on fourth down in the Apple Cup, it converted.
The Huskies were an impressive 8-for-12 on fourth down in Sarkisian’s first season. He’s 18-for-34 over his two years, a 52.9 percent success rate.
Sarkisian has shown no decision-making tendencies, largely consulting with his abdomen for an answer. To wit:
The Huskies had a 14-6 lead against Idaho in 2009 when he decided to go for a fourth-and-3 from the Idaho 45. Polk ran for five.
Trailing Stanford 24-14 a week later, Sarkisian called a pass on fourth-and-5 at the Stanford 33 during the opening drive of the third quarter. Jake Locker was sacked.
Twice on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line against Oregon in 2009, the first time trailing just 8-3, second when the game was out of hand, Sarkisian attempted to convert. The Huskies made the unimportant, but not the game-changer.
It’s fair to argue the fourth-down conversions in 2010 will become historic plays when the state of the program is assessed in five years. The two conversions by Locker against USC; the goal line power at Cal; the 15-yard rush by Polk during the final drive against Washington State. In those three wins, all vital to 6-6 and the bowl, Washington was 6-for-7 on fourth-down attempts.
“When you make those things, I think they’re real momentum builders,” Sarkisian said. “To extend drives, especially when you’re getting limited opportunities. To me, I think it’s worth it. Those big fourth-down conversions go a long way.”
There’s a larger extrapolation of the attempts. Sarkisian is working to pump an indomitable feeling through the program, and going for it on fourth down is a tool.
“It’s not just that we’re going for it for the sake of going for it, we believe we’re going to make it,” Sarkisian said. “That can have a real direct effect not only in that ballgame but as part of the culture of your team as you grow together.”
In all cases, it’s been a growth spurt.