Football: On fourth downs, Fitzgerald showing heightened willingness to roll the dice


Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Pat Fitzgerald stalks the sidelines. The coach has taken an aggressive approach to fourth downs this season.

Max Schuman, Gameday Editor


After sending out his offense on a season-high six fourth downs against Iowa, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged the heat that comes with those choices.

“Most of those decisions were in the ‘alumni zone,’” Fitzgerald said postgame, “which if I get it right, everybody says great job. And if I don’t, everybody says I’m an idiot.”

Despite the pressure, the Wildcats’ head man hasn’t shied away from a bold approach on fourth downs in 2017. Saturday’s game had mitigating factors, like a strong wind that made kicking toward the south end zone at Ryan Field ill-advised, but it also was a continuation of a season-long trend.

Through seven games, Fitzgerald has attempted to convert on 22 fourth downs, tied for the second-highest total in the country. At 3.1 attempts per game, NU (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) is on pace to fly by last season’s total of 32 attempts in 13 contests.

The 2016 season appeared a radical step forward for Fitzgerald, who called for just 11 fourth down attempts the season prior. The Cats had to contend with an unreliable kicker in Jack Mitchell, and Fitzgerald often opted to leave the field goal unit on the sideline in favor of the offense.

But NU’s coach has doubled down on fourth downs this year and has been even more aggressive in Big Ten play. With his offense struggling to find its footing against conference foes, Fitzgerald has called for 4.3 attempts per game through four Big Ten games, giving his team extra chances to keep drives alive.

Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson said Fitzgerald’s confidence in the offense on fourth downs gives the unit a boost.

“Fitz trusts us to get a first down, and we love that,” Thorson said. “We love going for it on fourth down. We love the trust he has in us.”

The offense has repaid Fitzgerald’s trust by converting on 59.1 percent of those attempts, including a perfect 7-for-7 on fourth downs with one yard to go. For a group that has moved the chains on just 35.1 percent of its third downs in 2017, that fourth-down performance has been a boon at times.

At others, failed conversions have left points on the field for the Cats. Fitzgerald has been liable to take shots on fourth downs of almost any distance across midfield this season, including from positions theoretically inside the range of new kicker Charlie Kuhbander. The freshman has connected on 7-of-8 field goals so far, but NU’s coach said his approach isn’t an indictment of his kicker.

“We’re trying to be aggressive, we’re playing to win,” Fitzgerald said. “My decisions to go for it on fourth down have zero to do with Charlie. I have 100 percent confidence in his ability. I’m not going to put him in a situation where I don’t feel 100 percent confident that he’s going to make the kick.”

With No. 16 Michigan State (6-1, 4-0) and its stingy defense coming to Evanston this weekend, Fitzgerald will likely continue rolling the dice on fourth down. He did so as an underdog against top teams like Wisconsin and Penn State, with seven combined fourth-down attempts in those two games.

But regardless of the opponent this season, the Cats’ long-time leader has seemed more than willing to go for it given the chance.

“That’s who Fitz is — he’s very aggressive as a person,” senior running back Justin Jackson said. “I always feel like we’re going to get it, I always have confidence in us. And he does too.”

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