The fourth-down play is as laden with subliminal meaning as any play in the game of football.
An offense that goes for it on fourth down is sending two messages to the opposition: First, that it believes it can confidently gain enough yardage against a foe’s defense in one attempt, and second, that even if it fails to do so, its defense is strong enough to deal with whatever ramifications may ensue.
The call to go for it on fourth down is therefore a slap in the face to the opposition disguised in the form of gutsy offensive play-calling. The farther the offense has to go to gain a first down, the harder that slap in the face can get.
In Cal’s 12-10 win over Washington, the Huskies went for it on fourth down (and long, for that matter), twice — a clear indication that Washington head coach Chris Petersen has a keen understanding of the intricacies of a fourth-down play call.
The first time the Huskies went for it on fourth down was on their first offensive drive of the game. The Huskies, helmed by veteran quarterback Jake Browning, had made it to the Bears’ 31-yard line before looking down the barrel of a potential turnover. Instead of opting for a punt that would have trapped Cal deep in its own territory, Washington went for it as Browning kept the play alive with his legs — and converted the first down. The Huskies went on to score on that drive, establishing an early seven-point lead.
But a gutsy fourth-down call isn’t just an opportunity for the offense to slap — it’s also a vital opportunity for the defense to slap back. If the attempt signals a disrespect to the defense, thwarting the opposition sends a strong message to the offense to think twice next time.
On the Huskies’ second attempt on fourth-and-long in the third quarter, Browning was faced with the daunting task of gaining a full first down. But linebacker Alex Funches wouldn’t let him get it. In the blink of an eye, Funches stalked Browning and sacked him for a loss of four yards.
The Huskies didn’t go for it on fourth down again.
Moments like that are pivotal in a game and can significantly swing the balance of power to heavily favor one team over another. It’s a testament to the composure and talent of the Bears’ defense that the Bears weren’t dejected after surrendering a first down on Washington’s first attempt, and came back more determined not to let it happen again.
But while Cal’s defense did a good job shutting down Petersen’s antics, Cal’s offense might do well to learn a thing or two. Did the Bears play poorly on offense this game? No, and especially not when compared to earlier showings this season. Quarterback Chase Garbers didn’t commit a single turnover, and he showed poise in the pocket in addition to good downfield vision. But the Garbers-led offense didn’t notch a single touchdown — indeed, the game was won by linebacker Evan Weaver’s pick six.
So what can the Bears learn? A little guts, a little glory and a little audacity. Garbers showed himself to be capable of stabilizing and leading an offense; now, what’s left is for that offense to show a little bit of moxie.
Moxie, swagger, spunk — whatever you want to call it, it’s what separates the good from the great in college football. The Cal secondary dosed itself with a bit of it when the players labeled themselves “The Takers,” but it seems as though the offense still has some catching up to do in that department. Petersen and the Huskies showed moxie by going for it on fourth down on two separate occasions — Funches responded with some spunk of his own.
In their win against the Huskies, the Bears proved they have an offense that can move the chains. Now all they’ve got to do is channel some of Petersen’s brazen play-calling and inject themselves with some fourth-down swagger.