Game analysis: Should Cal have gone for it on 4th and 1?

D'Amato had already missed two field goals before fourth quarter 42-yard try

Michael Tao/Staff

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Let’s set the stage. It’s the fourth quarter in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday. Cal’s Brendan Bigelow runs 59 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. Less than a minute later, Steve Williams intercepts Braxton Miller, and the Ohio State faithful at the Horseshoe have gone silent. Could the Bears actually upset the Buckeyes?

The Cal offense starts at Ohio State’s 44-yard line with 7:17 on the clock. Isi Sofele rushes for a first down. Then senior catches a pass to come within a yard of another first down. At third down, fullback Eric Stevens takes the handoff for no gain.

Fourth down. One yard to go. Ball at the OSU 25. Score tied at 28. It’s decision time.

Cal head coach Jeff Tedford lets the clock wind down to 4:25. He calls a timeout and out trots placekicker Vincenzo D’Amato.

Tedford does not regret going for the field goal.

“At that point in the game, you’re there to go ahead,” Tedford said. “When it’s 28-28 on the scoreboard and there are four minutes left to play, we are going to go for (the field goal). We wanted to put some points on the board.

“So that was the decision to do it. It just didn’t happen today.”

D’Amato, of course, missed the 42-yard attempt wide left. Miller, of course, threw a 72-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing drive to take the lead. Zach Maynard, of course, threw an interception later in the fourth quarter. And, of course, the Bears lost, 35-28.

But was it the right call to kick the field goal? The offense had been firing on all cylinders. Bigelow was “electric,” according to Maynard, while Sofele put up close to 100 yards. With Keenan Allen, Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, Maynard had three sure-handed receivers to throw to.

The Bears had already gone for it on fourth down twice — both times unsuccessfully.

In the first quarter, with just over six minutes remaining, Maynard threw an incomplete pass at fourth and six on Ohio State’s 39-yard line. In the beginning of the fourth quarter, at the Buckeyes’ 38-yard line, Maynard completed a pass to Allen for five yards but, alas, it was fourth and six.

But this was a totally separate case: It was the fourth quarter, and the score was tied. The Bears were in field goal range, and a kick through the uprights would give Cal the lead.

“Personally, I would have gone for it,” Sofele said. “But we all respect Coach Tedford and what he called. (D’Amato) went out there and missed the kick.”

D’Amato entered the game 4-for-5 on field goals on the season. But in the second quarter he missed a 40-yard try; in the third quarter, a 42-yarder. Maybe the hope was that the third time would be the charm. Or maybe, when you have an opportunity to take the lead late in a ball game, you do it.

Ten yards farther and Cal probably would have been forced to go for it. Ten yards closer and maybe the kick would have been good.

Asked about reevaluating the starting kicker position after the game, Tedford paused.

“We’ll talk about it,” he said. “I felt like Vince was close on the other two. Typically he gets stuff worked out … I have confidence that he’ll bounce back.”

With all that said, Ohio State still ripped through Cal’s defense for a quick touchdown after the missed field goal. Had D’Amato made it, the Bears still would have needed another score. So maybe it didn’t make a difference.

Even with a shaky kicker, it was the right call. The Cal defense had given up just one score in the second half. It was a makeable field goal for a usually-reliable kicker, and the Bears had just been stuffed on third and one.

The missed field goal did not cost Cal the game. Missed opportunities, failed third-down conversions (the Bears were 6-for-15), big plays on defense and a key interception did the trick. Don’t place the blame on D’Amato.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]