Sound decision? Why P.J. Fleck passed on going for it on fourth-and-2 in first quarter

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers held a seven-point lead on Wisconsin in the first quarter Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium when they faced fourth-and-2 from the Badgers 35-yard line. In a game that would decide the Big Ten West title, the Gophers had all the momentum playing before 53,756 fans who braved the sleet and snow to see Minnesota attempt to get its 11th victory.

Seth Green had just been stopped for no gain on third down but it made all the sense in the world that Gophers coach P.J. Fleck would have his offense go for it. Even if Minnesota didn’t get the first down, it would turn over possession in Badgers territory.

Fleck, though, decided against trying to run another play and had Jacob Herbers come on to punt. The Gophers took a delay of game penalty and Herbers punted 31 yards from the Badgers 40-yard line.

So why not go for it?

“It’s fourth-and-a-long-2, you give (Badgers running back) Jonathan Taylor and that offense really good field position,” if you don’t get it, Fleck said. “Now all of a sudden if we don’t get that, now they march down the field it’s 7-7, and everybody is like, ‘Why didn’t you punt and pin them down (in their own territory)?’ I felt like our defense was playing lights out at that particular time.

“We just put them in three-and-out and went down and scored. So I felt like we could play that. At the time you only know what you know, you can only gather the information based on what you see. That was the decision. If it was fourth-and-1, we would have went for it. Fourth-and-a-long-2, a little bit different because the play before that they stuff it pretty good. That play had a lot to do with it but we pinned them down there, we did exactly what we wanted to do and made them have to go a long part of the field.”

The Badgers did not score on their ensuing drive, turning over the ball on a fumble at the Gophers 32 in the second quarter, but the Gophers’ momentum disappeared after Fleck’s decision and the Badgers had a 10-7 lead at halftime en route to a 38-17 victory. The Gophers opened the day hoping that they would face Ohio State in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 7 and would remain in contention to be part of the College Football playoff. Even a loss to Ohio State, meant they would almost certainly be headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1961 season.

But those hopes disappeared with the one-sided loss to the Badgers. Fleck often talks about his belief in his team and would seem to be a coach who embraces making bold decisions. So it was interesting that when presented with an opportunity to do that he passed. Dissecting the above quote is an interesting exercise.

If Fleck felt his defense was playing so well, wouldn’t it have made sense to trust that they could have stopped Wisconsin, even if the Badgers got the ball at their own 35 instead of the 9? Actually, on the Badgers’ previous series they had gotten a first down and not gone three-and-out but they ended up punting from their own 44.

Fleck could have put his team in position to take a 10-point lead if it had gotten the 2 yards. Would it have been a gamble? Yes. But given the circumstances, it seemed to be one worth taking. Fleck, however, passed and, in doing so, passed on the momentum his team had at the time.