Are football coaches overly reliant on onside kicks?

Let me be completely honest with you. I am writing this post in the aftermath of the 2019 Rose Bowl where the University of Washington lost to Ohio State so my views and opinions are most certainly biased. It’s not a surprise to me that the Huskies lost. I think Ohio State was the better team. Rather, it was a decision in the 4th quarter by the Huskies that surprised me.

Let me set the stage.

OSU outshined UW in the first half. The Huskies looked outmatched and made some poor coaching decisions which meant they were down 21-3 at halftime. Tack on another early OSU touchdown in the 3rd quarter and this game was 28-3 before you knew it. To be completely honest, I snoozed off at this point for a bit.

Just about everyone thought the game was over.

I woke up late in the 3rd quarter and caught the Huskies score a touchdown early in the 4th quarter to make the game 28-10. I figured hey, at least they scored a touchdown.

Fast-forward a couple possessions and the Huskies manage to score another touchdown. It’s now 28-17 with less than 7 minutes remaining. Not exactly a close game but there is a sliver of hope for the Huskies if they did everything right. On the next drive they stopped OSU again and get the ball back with about 5 minutes remaining. So far, so good.

Now, they could really use a touchdown.

Well, things don’t go so hot and now it’s 4th & 8 on the Washington 22 with less than 4 minutes left.

Let me say that again, there are less than 4 minutes left. The Huskies need 11 points to even tie the game. That means they need a touchdown, 2-point conversion and field goal to even force overtime to have a *chance* to win the game.

So what do they do? Go for it right? Take a big shot and try to make it happen. Put all the chips on the table and keep marching down the field.

No, they punt.

So why am I being critical?

By punting they give the ball back to Ohio State which wastes a lot of time.

They managed to get the ball back from Ohio State with ~2:30 left which is more than I thought they would (Ohio State made some bad choices). The Huskies then scored another touchdown but didn’t get that 2-point conversion so the score was now 28-23. Here’s the problem, there was only 42 seconds left. That meant the huskies only hope was to recover an onside kick.

For those that aren’t familiar, an onside kick is where you try to recover your own kickoff. It’s really hard to do. How hard?

Well, I’m having a hard time pinning down the specifics but reports range anywhere from 8% to around 20% (when teams are expecting it). The disparity is likely due to sample size and rule changes. Also, college and pro football have slightly different rules. Let’s call the chance of the Huskies recovering that onside kick 15%.

According to the NCAA data for 2018, 4th down conversions were successful 53% of the time. A lot of those attempts were probably short yardage so that number isn’t truly representative of the Huskies situation. According to Advanced Football Analytics, because the Huskies were looking to convert a 4th & 8 outside their own 20, they had about a 37% chance of converting.

Are those good odds? No. Are they better than 15%? Absolutely. Would they have been successful? Probably not. If they had converted, would they have won? Still, probably not, but they would’ve given themselves a better chance.

All things said, we can’t rewrite history. I’d have to look at the data in the aggregate to know, but I surmise that coaches probably do rely on the hope of recovering an onside kick too often when they have statistically superior options to them available earlier in the game.