NIU Sports

Carifio: Don’t blame the analytics boogeyman for aggressive, smart play calls

Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock

In the middle of the season, when NIU started running through Mid-American Conference opponents with a mix of a dominant running game and bold play-calling, a lot of people didn’t know what to think.

Why is this team going for it on fourth down so much? Why are they eschewing field goals and/or punts? It must be those evil analytics at play.

As we saw in the NFL on Thursday, any time a commentator or fan disagrees with a coach’s call, it’s because of analytics. Clearly, some number on a card told them that going for two was better than an extra point, or going for the fourth-down conversion made more sense than a punt.

The thing is, there is no card. People who don’t like a coach’s decision assume there’s some algorithm or formula telling coaches what to do. We saw that last week with the Chargers and Brandon Staley against the Chiefs. And we’ve seen it with Thomas Hammock and the Huskies all year.

But with Hammock, there is no card. He’s mentioned a strategy session with coaches before the game, where they talk about what they want to do in certain situations.

The calls come from Hammock, not a supercomputer. And for the record, the people who rail against analytics so fiercely, I imagine they picture a 1950s battleship-size computer with punch cards, reel-to-reels, and all the other science-fiction trappings.

But Hammock’s decisions not only won the Huskies the MAC championship, but it also got them within one non-play (sorry) of winning their first bowl game in a decade. Of course, we all know they didn’t get to run that play because of some clock shenanigans and ended up losing, 47-41, to Coastal Carolina.

“We want to be aggressive as possible to go win,” Hammock said earlier this year about the thought process in going for it on fourth down. “Then we’ll figure out the next one. We want to take advantage of each and every opportunity every week.”

The Huskies went for it on fourth down so much because they were good at it. They had Clint Ratkovich, a man who doesn’t get less than 2 yards a carry. They knew when to misdirect. And they were the best in the country at it.

At this point, people railing against the boogeyman of analytics might as well blame these decisions by Hammock, Staley and anyone else on the alignment of the planets, or critical race theory, or whatever other thing people use as a blanket term to disparage things they really don’t like and really don’t understand.

It was nice to see Friday in the Cure Bowl the announcers celebrate the aggressive play-calling by Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell and Hammock. Neither team punted in the first half, and the Huskies never kicked at all. They also were 4 for 5 on fourth down.

Of course, the one miss was a biggie, a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter with the Huskies clinging to a two-point lead at their own 34. Honestly, I’m not a supercomputer, but I can’t imagine the number crunchers agreeing that was the smart, analytical move.

But it was the right gut move. The NIU defense was struggling. Ratkovich is a savant at picking up fourth down. It just didn’t work out this time, and to draw more attention to it, the Chanticleers scored a touchdown to take the lead for good on the first play of the ensuing drive.

No card. Just instinct.

If you can’t understand why someone made a call, don’t go blaming something else you don’t understand.

Eddie Carifio is Daily Chronicle sports editor. Write to him at ecarifio@shawmedia.com.