Going For Two in College Football When Up By 15

During week one of college football, the USF Bulls scored an early fourth quarter touchdown against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This put them up 22-7 before the point after. Simple math tells you that this is a 15 point lead, or a minimum of two separate successful scores in college football, both touchdowns, and one include a successful two-point conversion. Taking the easy extra point makes it a 16 point game, still a minimum of two scores. But if USF had gone for two and converted it, they would have led by 17, making it a three score game. With under 11 minutes to go, this seems to make more sense.

I found an article] on an NC State blog called “Backing the Pack” that discusses two point conversions, and contains the key stats during the last decade. These stats are that teams are successful 95.2% of the time on extra point kicks, but only 41.1% successful on two point conversions. I assume that these stats weight heavy on the decision. If I did the math right, it’s something like a 24% chance Notre Dame could convert two 2-point conversions. Of course this is based just on the NCAA-wide average and doesn’t include tons of other factors. Even if you assume Notre Dame is above average on offense and USF is below average on defense, and give them every benefit of the doubt, it’s unlikely this percentage goes above 40%. So let’s look at each scenario.

Assume USF goes for two and fails, remember the success rate is only 41% NCAA-wide, that leaves them up 15 with 11 minutes to go, more than enough time for ND to score twice, at with point they would have at least 41% chance of converting a two point conversion. Of course if they fail to make one, it still is a two possession game after that.

If they kick the extra point, which carries with it about a 95% success rate, it becomes a 16-point game. As we discussed earlier, the chances of making two 2-point conversions is around 24%. Again, a failure by ND to make either 2-point conversion means an extra possession will be needed.

If USF goes for two and converts, Notre Dame now needs three scores right from the get go, but will not need any two point conversions. I actually thought this was a no brainer. Go for this, make it a three possession game and assume 11 minutes isn’t enough time. As I learned this past weekend in the Michigan/Notre Dame game, 11 minutes is enough for way more than three touchdowns. The other problem with this scenario is that Notre Dame’s approach would be different than the previous two. This is the only scenario where, after the USF score, ND knows for certain they need three scores. They play with a better sense of that and only need two touchdowns with extra points and don’t have to make any two point conversions. Of course, this assumes that Notre Dame holds USF scoreless the rest of the way. I don’t have any statistics about how many times a team has scored at least three times in the final 11 minutes of a game, but I would guess it’s not very high in general. But again, it likely is influenced by a lot of things.

What I learned was that this slam dunk decision was far from that. Maybe it’s my video game mindset, but I just assumed that you would want to make this a three possession game with 11 minutes to go. I would assume in the NFL it’s a bit of a different story. It seems far more likely that an NFL team could put the game away at that point, but maybe college football is different. If you ran the ball three times and punted it’s likely that you would only use up about 2 minutes. If the other team has all their timeouts, it’s conceivable they could get that third score, especially if it’s a field goal. Of course there is far more information to be considered when making this decision, including each team’s proficiencies and personnel. When it’s all said and done, I clearly overestimated how simple this was.