Joe Paterno gambled in 1967 and lost, while facing an issue college coaches still stare down today: When to go for it on fourth down.
James Franklin, at his third and final Coaches Caravan stop on Wednesday, said he talked to a booster this week about the 1967 Gator Bowl — a 17-17 tie between Penn State and Florida State. The Nittany Lions led 17-0 early in the third quarter when Paterno went for it on 4th-and-inches from Penn State's own 15-yard line. The Seminoles held.
"The momentum swung at that time," Franklin said. "But if I turned that exact play into the analytics company, they'd say he was right going there."
There's a balance to be had between analytics and gut calls as a coach when it comes to fourth-down decision-making. It's a difficult balance to strike, but that is one reason why Franklin is paid what he's paid. It's why the head coach is constantly trying to gain perspective and challenge his own way of thinking.
Penn State pays an unspecified analytics company to break down the game in a way Franklin and his staff can't. As Franklin explained, the service sends out a report every Sunday with a dozen or so examples from NFL and college games of "situations where they feel like they could have been handled differently." A lot of times, it's fourth-down decisions.
"The reality is, if it's 4th-and-1, I don't care if it's on (your own 12-yard line), the analytics companies say you should go for it," Franklin said. "The analytics companies are going to say to go for it on every single one of them."
"If the analytics back up what my gut is telling me, it makes me feel good. I'm like, 'OK, I'm on the right path.' My gut feels that way, the staff is telling me that, and the analytics say that we're right," Franklin continued. "And then you have the opposite time, when your gut is telling you one thing and the analytics tell you another, and it challenges you. You may still come to the same conclusion, but it forces dialogue. It forces you to have a discussion."
Still, all things considered, Franklin knows to take the numbers and percentages with a grain of salt.
Those companies don't look at a team's personnel the same way coaches do. When Penn State has a weapon like punter Blake Gillikin — who was fourth in coffin wedge average last season, per GPR Punt Ratings — those 4th-and-short decisions at or around midfield aren't as cut and dry.
"Blake Gillikin is unbelievable at pinning people inside their 10," Franklin said, wide-eyed. "And I also know, if you can get the other team to start their drive inside the 10, that usually equates for three points for us. ...If we can pin them deep — if they have it within the 10-yard line trying to go 90 on us — and we can keep them to a three-and-out with a punt or a turnover down there, that's points. Automatic points."
Perhaps that's why Penn State went for it on fourth down only 14 times in 2017. The only Big Ten teams less aggressive on fourth down? Illinois and Wisconsin.
But in those 14 attempts, the Nittany Lions converted eight times for a 57.1 percent success rate, more efficient than their 10 for 20 mark in 2016. Three of those eight conversions came in Penn State's thrilling win over Iowa, with two of them by necessity on the game-winning drive.
"Personnel factors into the decision-making process. But basically, any time we don't go for it on 4th-and-1, the analytics companies think we're wrong," Franklin reiterated, before grinning. "And as you guys know, the fans think you're wrong. Until you go for it and you don't get it, and you're an idiot after the fact. But that's life."