Penn State, Falcons learn: Scoring a touchdown can be a losing play

It’s the most counterintuitive notion in football: Those rare instances where scoring a touchdown on offense is a bad idea that actually decreases the scoring team’s chances of winning.

But it played out twice in spectacular (depending on which side you were on) fashion this weekend, with the part-math, part-instinct problem rearing its head in a huge college football upset and an NFL game between two teams who both could have used a win.

Here’s a look at the situations at how both played out:

*Underdog Indiana trailed Penn State 21-20 and seemed to be done for when the Nittany Lions forced a turnover on downs at Indiana’s 14 yard line with 1:47 left to play.

The Hoosiers had just one timeout left, meaning Penn State had time on its side. On the first play of the drive, Penn State’s Devyn Ford ran untouched toward the end zone. If he had fallen down at, say, the 2 — getting a first down without a touchdown — the game essentially would have been over. Indiana would have had to burn its last timeout to stop the clock, and Penn State could have kneeled down three times and won 21-20.

But … Ford instead ran into the end zone. Touchdown! Great! Nope. That increased the Penn State lead to 27-20. The Nittany Lions elected to kick the extra point (which they made) for a 28-20 lead. But that gave Indiana the ball back with nearly 2 minutes left and with a chance to tie with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

That’s exactly what happened — leading later to Indiana’s controversial touchdown and two-point conversion in overtime and a 36-35 win over the No. 8-ranked Nittany Lions.

Indiana coach Tom Allen said he had ordered his team to let Ford score. Penn State coach James Franklin, wise to the dynamics at play, had told his players not to score. But sometimes habits are hard to break.

We went through that situation this week [in practice],” Franklin said, “and we went through that situation on the sideline, and obviously we could’ve handled it better. What we wanted to do was get as much as you can and get down.”

Indeed, when you watch the video you can see Ford realizes his mistake about a half-yard too late.

What’s interesting is that Penn State still could have come much closer to sealing the game by going for a 2-point conversion. Making it would have put them up 29-20, a two-score lead with less than two minutes left. But missing it would have left it at 27-20, meaning Indiana would need only a TD and conventional extra point kick to tie. I’ve always favored going for 2 in that instance.

*The same situation — albeit with slightly different math — played out in the Lions vs. Falcons NFL game Sunday.

Just like Ford, Atlanta running back Todd Gurley was trying to get as many yards as he could without scoring. But like Ford, Gurley just couldn’t quite keep himself … out of the end zone. And just like Indiana, you can see Lions players celebrating because they allowed … a touchdown. Strange, right?

In that case, Atlanta was trailing 16-14 with just over a minute left. The Falcons could have run the clock down to just a few seconds remaining and tried a chip shot field goal for a 17-16 win.

While a field goal from, say, 20-29 yards is no sure thing (just ask any Vikings fan who was around in 2015), NFL kickers in 2019 made 98.3% of their tries from that distance in 2019.

By scoring a touchdown (and adding a 2-point conversion), the Falcons had a 22-16 lead but gave Detroit the ball back with a minute left needing a touchdown to win. Their win probability at that point was 93.4% — less than it would have been while lining up for a short field goal.

And indeed, the Lions went down the field quickly and scored on the final play of the game — adding the extra point for a 23-22 win. And again, everyone knew what they were supposed to do.

I was trying not to (score). My momentum took me in,” Gurley said. “It’s kind of crazy, the last time I played Detroit, I went down. This time I end up scoring. It’s like what goes around, comes around. It’s one of them unfortunate situations. I’ve been, I mean, plenty of those situations my rookie year, six or seven, and I’ve always got down. It was an unfortunate one right there.”

If there’s any consolation for Atlanta: The loss keeps them in the Tank For Trevor sweepstakes with a 1-6 record after last week’s blowout win over the Vikings left them vulnerable. Meanwhile, the Lions are 3-3.

Anyone banking on Detroit being two wins in the Vikings’ column late this season might need to think again — especially if Minnesota, which has found breathtaking ways to lose a couple of games already this season, manages to score a touchdown when it really shouldn’t.

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