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A.I. and Analytics Still No Replacement for Game Day Human Intelligence

by on October 18, 2018 5:00 AM

From its origin in baseball the trend of analytics, artificial intelligence and modeling has infected almost every sport. Into this brave new technological world, on Saturday night in Happy Valley we got a reminder of how valuable a coach’s game-day eye and gut feelings can be.

Statistical analysis has a place in helping a coach anticipate how a game may unfold. In situations like third downs and the red zone, every coach should go into a game knowing the opponent’s history, blitz percentages or run/pass stats in those situations. They know how teams have lined up or substituted versus different personnel groups or formations or motions.

Based on information produced by analysis they try to predict behavior. But that only gets you to the coin toss.

Once the game is kicked off, analytics may be thrown out the window because of weather or in-game injuries. Perhaps your opponent makes game planning changes knowing what they’ve done or what you’ve done. Sometimes you know something about your opponent that can’t be quantified numerically.

In 1990 that came into play when No. 18 Penn State played No. 1 Notre Dame under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus. Penn State had the ball tied 21-21 and facing a fourth down around midfield. Over the objections of some of his assistants, Joe Paterno decided to punt rather than go for it.

Some griped that he was playing for the tie (there was no OT then). Joe remained calm knowing Notre Dame had one loss and Lou Holtz needed to win to stay in the hunt for the national championship.

In thinking globally he understood what the other guy was thinking. He knew that Holtz would try to throw to win the game from deep in his own territory. Sure enough, a few plays later Notre Dame’s quarterback threw an interception setting up Penn State’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

In 1999 we played Ohio State and just killed them with the toss sweep — starting tailback Eric McCoo racked up 211 yards on just 22 carries. The next week as we prepared for the Purdue game, Joe kept telling the staff that we couldn’t just hang our hat on what we’d done last week because, as he said, “The Purdue staff isn’t stupid. They’re going to make an adjustment… we’re not dealing with robots.”

The next week, as we ran the toss sweep, Purdue had, in fact, made an adjustment to take away that play and it almost cost us the game. Fortunately we adapted as the game wore on to barely escape with a win.

Last weekend Penn State-Michigan State was a game that broke with statistical expectations. Michigan State came into the game as the nation’s top run defense while allowing a staggering 300+ yards through the air. On Saturday, Penn State rolled up more than 200 yards rushing. But the Spartans did a nice job containing QB Trace McSorley’s running after he’d rushed for 179 yards against Ohio State. The Spartans also surprisingly played the pass game very well.

Outside of Mile Sanders’s TD run to make it 14-7 and another 78-yard run, the Spartans’ sure tackling helped limit plays that PSU players had broken against Ohio State and other defenses.

So despite all analytics to the contrary, the facts on the ground as the game played out indicated that this game was different. And that played into a key decision late in the game that was actually the biggest gamble in a game where MSU had faked a punt, a field goal and made a big gain on a trick play.

As the game neared its end head coach Mark Dantonio faced a crucial decision. With 2:10 to play MSU QB Brian Lewerke got sacked, setting up a fourth down. Instead of calling timeout and going for it, he ran his punt team on the field and kicked the ball to Penn State. Saving that timeout proved to be invaluable.

Dantonio made a critical decision based on what he’d seen from his defense’s game day performance and attitude. He put the game in their hands with just 10 yards between defeat and a chance to win.

Michigan State got the stop it needed and on their next possession they scored to win the game. Football fans have seen that same decision work and fail on various occasions. Most times the veteran coach whose team is controlling the tempo of the game gets it right.

It just goes to show you that sometimes human intelligence is far more valuable on game day than computer analytics and artificial intelligence. In the weeks ahead in college football, watch how more situations like that play out. It is truly fascinating to watch the game within the game.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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