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The 4th Down Decision

Breaking down the game deciding 4th-and-short decision against Purdue

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State is coming off a frustrating 30-21 loss to Purdue Saturday night. Obviously the result of a game doesn’t boil down to one play. Especially considering: the Beavers generated just 78 yards on the ground (a paltry 3.1 yards per carry). Sam Noyer looked uncomfortable and out of sync. Jack Plummer completed 71% of his passes etc etc. But if you had to pin-point the “play of the game”. The one snap that most impacted the outcome it had to be the 4th-and-1 at the Beavers 37 with 8:22 to go in the fourth quarter.

Let’s break it down frame by frame. If you want to re-watch the play you can find it here on Youtube (starts at the 16:36 mark).


Purdue essentially has 9 players at the line of scrimmage and both linebackers in the middle are clearly inching forward to stuff the run (talk about stacking the box). I don’t care how good the blocking is, going with the run game here was probably going nowhere. The only Purdue players in any sort of position to defend the pass were #23 Cory Trice, #10 Cam Allen and #1 Dedrick Mackey.


Half a second in and there’s chaos. As bodies collide at the line of scrimmage #10 and #1 are frozen as they await the play-action outcome. Cory Trice (#23) on the far side of the field is in a tough spot as he’s forced to choose between staying with Luke Musgrave or Tyjon Lindsey.


Chance Nolan has to make a snap decision as a Purdue player is quickly in his face. As the play-action pass develops there’s a maximum of four receiving options. The two highlighted previously; Trey Lowe out of the backfield and Jake Overman on the near side of the line. Overman was clearly in just to block, but he occupied Dedrick Mackey’s (#1) attention just enough that Purdue was scrambling to cover two receivers with one defender. First Cory Trice had to choose between staying with Lindsey or Musgrave. When he ran with Lindsey it forced Cam Allen to pick between Trey Lowe or Luke Musgrave.


Here’s the ball in the air. Luke Musgrave is WIDE OPEN. Obviously this entire play happened in the matter of about 2 seconds and Tyjon Lindsey was most likely the primary option (he did have a step on Trice). Also if Chance Nolan did happen to toss it to Musgrave, Purdue’s players would have adjusted and followed the ball, meaning Musgrave isn’t probably as wide open as he appears when the ball is in the air. You can also argue that the pressure is coming from Nolan’s left side and it’s not easy to throw it where the pressure is coming from, but still I think Musgrave should have gotten the pass here.


There’s no way around it Cory Trice made an outstanding play. Yes, the ball was slightly under-thrown, but we’re talking about the Beavers third string QB here with pressure in his face. But even a somewhat lofted throw 20 yards to the left side of the field near Luke Musgrave probably results in the first down and more. And who knows maybe even an Oregon State victory.

There’s been a decent amount of discussion and social media hand-wringing on this decision. Was it the right choice? Should Jonathan Smith have trusted his defense and punted? Of course hindsight is 20/20 and if the two choices are a turnover on downs or a punt, you pick the punt every time. But personally I am in favor of aggressive play-calling. The days of playing the field position battle and winning games with your defense are few and far between. According to the analytics nerds (see below) the right call was going for it.

Over the last three seasons Oregon State is 7-12, with a bunch of very close very competitive games. Far too often the Beavers are coming up short in these close games. As much as I support the aggressive play-calling, you’re graded on the final results. Jonathan Smith isn’t anywhere near the hot seat, but Beaver fans won’t be patient forever. It’s time to start winning these close games. And 2021 is the year to do it. Why couldn’t Oregon State be one of the top teams in the Pac-12 North?