Risking it for the biscuit: Sarkisian’s aggressive Saturday calls give Longhorns leg up

Nathan Han, Sports Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the September 13 flipbook.

Texas’s 38-18 win against Louisiana this Saturday will go down in record books and Wikipedia pages as a clean, drama-filled 20-point blowout.

But during the Longhorns’ second drive of the afternoon, the team faced a potential second straight stalled drive and a 4th-and-6 from the opposing 40 yard line down 3-0.

Then, head coach and offensive play caller Steve Sarkisian made his gutsiest decision of the gamehe left his offense on the field to go for it. 

Redshirt freshman Hudson Card rewarded him for the decision, scrambling out of pressure for just enough yards for the first down.

“Well, it’s obviously a big play. I mean, if you decide to go for it on fourth down, it’s always great because the crowd cheers,” Sarkisian said. “It’s never good when they moan and groan when you don’t make it. So I think from a momentum standpoint, the play was big for keeping the crowd in the game.”

The decision to go for it on Saturday might have been Sarkisian’s most aggressive 4th-down call in the past two seasons as a play caller. 

“I think there is some science behind when to go for it on fourth down and when not to,” Sarkisian said.

And the science backs up his decision. 

The New York Times “4th Down Bot,” which calculates when the average NFL team should go for it on fourth down, agreed with Sarkisian’s decision and recommended teams go for it on 4th-and-6 from the opposing 40 yard line.

In the 2019 analysis, the New York Times also said that most NFL coaches elected to punt in that situation. In similar situations as the Alabama offensive coordinator in the past two seasons, Sarkisian also chose to play it safe. 

Most notably, in the first quarter of the 2019 Crimson Tide rivalry game against LSU, Sarkisian sent out his punting unit down 7-0 in a 4th-and-6 from the opposing 41 yard line.

Then, Alabama punter Ty Perine mishandled the snap, giving the Tigers the ball and enough field position to go up 10-0 in Alabama’s eventual 46-41 loss.

“It’s always great to go for a fourth down when you make it,” Sarkisian said. “It’s never good to go for it on fourth down when you don’t make it.”

In other similar situations at around midfield from 4th-and-5 to 4th-and-7, Sarkisian has elected to mostly punt the past two seasons. Several of those situations have also come with the Crimson Tide nursing large leads.

In 2019, Alabama converted 13 out of 19 fourth-down conversion attempts. In 2020, Alabama converted five out of nine fourth-down conversion attempts. 

“I think there’s a lot of gut that goes into it too,” Sarkisian said. “You want to make sure that you’ve got decent things called, to have an anticipation of maybe what they’re going to do and to give yourself the best chance to make it. There’s momentum involved. There’s emotion involved. There’s a lot that goes into it. There’s field position, there’s psyche for your team.”

When Sarkisian decided to go for it on Saturday, Card’s psyche might have played a factor. The redshirt freshman had yet to complete a pass beyond the line of scrimmage.

But the quarterback, starting his first career game, settled into the game nicely after getting the first down with his legs and led the Longhorns down the field for a touchdown and a lead they would never relinquish.

It was Texas’s only fourth-down conversion attempt of the game, and the only one the team would need: Card would go on to lead the offense on several key third down conversions.

“I just felt like at that time, that was the right thing to do,” Sarkisian said.