Success on 4th down brings national renown

Last year, I wrote this before the season began:

I believe fourth down is underutilized in college football. Too many times, a team punts when going for it is the proper call.

It goes deeper than that, though. The best way to approach most offensive possessions, especially those that begin less than 70 yards from the end zone, is to assume that the offense is already in “four-down territory”.

Doing so means a team can be more creative with offensive playcalling. For a team like The Citadel, that can really open up the playbook.

In general, I was more than satisfied with Brent Thompson’s approach on fourth down in 2018. In eleven games, The Citadel went for it on 4th down 38 times, which was third-most in all of FCS. The Bulldogs were successful 23 times, for a better-than-average 60.5% (the mean for FCS teams last year was 47.2%). Among teams in the sub-division, only Southern Utah converted more often on 4th down than The Citadel.

Those were statistics that I covered earlier, in one of my many (way too many) statistically-oriented posts. What I would like to do with this particular post, though, is to illustrate the “power” of 4th down by taking a long look at one of the more amazing seasons in recent years from the perspective of fourth down conversions. I’m talking about last year’s Army team.

A quick summary of the Black Knights’ campaign: an 11-2 record, with one of the two defeats an overtime loss at Oklahoma. The victories included a sweep of Navy and Air Force and four other wins over bowl teams, the last of those a 70-14 destruction of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The schedule also had some soft spots (two FCS teams, a brand-new-to-FBS Liberty squad, and 1-11 San Jose State), but it was nevertheless a very impressive campaign, and one that featured a fourth-down philosophy based on analytical research:

The analytics come in mostly on fourth-down decisions. Army is among dozens of Division I football schools that subscribe to Championship Analytics, which provides weekly customized statistical breakdowns for each team based on opponent, with recommendations on when to kick, go on fourth down, go for 2 and more.

“I’m not a math guy,” [said Army head football coach Jeff Monken]. “I’m not an analytical thinker. I’m a PE major and proud of it.”

But when presented with the statistics that showed Army should be more aggressive on fourth down, Monken quickly embraced a by-the-numbers approach.

“It made way too much sense to me to argue with,” he said, adding. “I think it really fits what we do.”

Before discussing Army’s 4th-down decision-making and success rate, it is well worth mentioning the Black Knights’ 3rd-down statistics last season, which were outstanding on both sides of the ball. 

On offense, Army was 112 for 196 (57.14%) on 3rd down in 2018, best in all of D-1. It helped that the Cadets only needed on average 5.4 yards to go on third down, which ranked first in FBS. 

Defensively, Army held opponents to a 3rd-down conversion rate of 26.56%, fourth-best in FBS. Third-down success was based on what happened on the first two downs, as Army’s opponents averaged 8.4 yards to go on third down — and yes, that was the highest yards-to-go average for any defense in the sub-division.

Thus, the Black Knights’ enormous time of possession advantage (holding the ball for 38:33 per game, by far tops in D-1) wasn’t strictly because of its ball-control offense. The defense also contributed by forcing 4th downs and getting off the field.

There is a reason why Mack Brown, the new-old coach at North Carolina, hired Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman to become the new DC for the Tar Heels.

Now, that is what Army did on third down. However, the Black Knights weren’t automatically lining up in punt formation if they failed to convert on 3rd down. Far from it.

Army failed to gain a first down (or touchdown) on 84 of its 196 3rd-down attempts last season. So what did it do on the next play? Here is the breakdown:

  • 3 times: There was no next play, because Army turned the ball over on 3rd down (two interceptions and a lost fumble)
  • 12 times: Army tried a field goal (making 8 of them)
  • 33 times: Army punted
  • 36 times: Army went for it on 4th down

Yes, the Black Knights had more 4th-down attempts than punts. How unusual was that? Well, Army was the only FBS team to go for it more often than punt (two FCS squads, Davidson and Kennesaw State, also did this).

Georgia Tech came close (35 punts, 34 fourth-down attempts), and so did Florida Atlantic (+2) and Air Force (+4). On the FCS side of the ledger, The Citadel’s +14 (52 punts, 38 fourth-down attempts) ranked 8th overall in this particular “Punts vs. 4th down attempts” category, one that frankly I just made up because I thought it was interesting.

Florida Atlantic actually led FBS in 4th-down conversion attempts, with 44 (the Owls were successful 24 times). FAU was 5-7 last season, which raises the possibility that part of the reason Lane Kiffin went for it on 4th down so often was because his team was trailing at the time.

However, Florida Atlantic also led FBS in 4th-down conversion attempts in 2017 (39, tied with Northwestern). The Owls won 11 games that season, so being aggressive on 4th down appears to be a consistent strategy for Kiffin. The teams that are most likely to go for it on 4th down are generally option outfits, so in that respect FAU has been a bit of an outlier over the last two seasons.

Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech led the ACC in terms of being most aggressive on 4th down (Boston College was second). The SEC team most likely to go for it on 4th down last year was South Carolina, which was a return to form of sorts for the Gamecocks (which led the conference in this area in 2011, 2013, and 2014, albeit under a different coaching staff).

Teams that were more likely to punt (or attempt a field goal) than go for it included Fresno State, LSU, Utah State, Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher has historically been very conservative in his decision-making), Central Michigan, and Maryland. Another team that did not go for it on fourth down as often as might have been anticipated: Georgia Southern.

The most incredible thing about Army and 4th down last year wasn’t the amount of attempts, though. It was the number of successful conversions. The Black Knights were 31 for 36 on 4th down, an astonishing 86% success rate that topped all of FBS. 

Nobody else in the country came close to combining such a high volume of attempts with that type of success. For example, Texas converted 80% of its 4th-down tries, second-best nationally by percentage, but only attempted 15 of them all season.

If you add those 31 successful 4th down plays to Army’s already impressive 3rd-down numbers, you get a 3rd-4th down “combination conversion” rate of 73%, which is A) a stat I may have just created, and B) simply ridiculous. 

One reason Army was so good on 4th down is that it often did not have far to go for a first down. Of the Black Knights’ 36 attempts, 28 of them were 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2 plays. Army was 25 for 28 in those down-and-distance situations.

The yards-to-go statistic on third down (5.4) I mentioned earlier in this post had a lot to do with that. Army set up a lot of short 4th-down plays by what it did on 3rd down.

What the Black Knights didn’t do quite as successfully, though, was get well ahead of the chains on first down (only 5.3 yards per play on 1st down, 101st in FBS). This was your classic “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, except that Army played most of its games on artificial turf. Big plays were not a regular staple of the attack.

Below is a chart of all 81 of Army’s 4th-down decisions from last season.

  • # = 4th down situations
  • P = punts
  • FGC = made field goals
  • FGX = missed field goals
  • C = successful 4th-down conversion attempts
  • X = failed 4th-down conversion attempts

Army 2018          #          P        FGC        FGX         C         X
    4th and
1 25 2 0 0 21 2
2 5 0 0 0 4 1
3 9 5 2 0 2 0
4 5 4 0 0 1 0
5 4 1 0 2 1 0
6 4 2 2 0 0 0
7 5 3 1 0 0 1
8 3 1 1 0 1 0
9 6 4 0 1 0 1
10 2 2 0 0 0 0
11 2 2 0 0 0 0
12 4 3 1 0 0 0
13 1 0 0 0 1 0
14+ 6 4 1 1 0 0
Total 81 33 8 4 31 5

As you can see, Army only punted on 4th-and-1 twice last year. The circumstances that led to those punts were quite similar:

– Against Air Force, Army faced a 4th-and-1 on its own 41-yard line. The Black Knights led 14-0 at the time, and it was early in the third quarter.

– Against Navy, Army faced a 4th-and-1 on its own 12-yard line. The Black Knights led 10-0 at the time, and it was early in the fourth quarter.

In both games Army was up two scores, playing a rival, and there were a limited amount of possessions in each contest (due to the nature of the offenses). Thus, on both occasions, Jeff Monken elected to punt. This certainly made sense, particularly in the Navy game, when Army was backed up to its own 12. 

As it happened, Navy actually scored a touchdown on its ensuing series, so that decision to punt didn’t really work out for the Black Knights.

Incidentally, in both situations, Army faced a 3rd-and-6, gained five yards to set up a 4th-and-1, and then punted.

Army went for it all five times it had a 4th-and-2, making four of them. The one failure came against the Midshipmen, when a rush attempt at the Navy 43-yard line only resulted in a one-yard gain.

There was more variety on 4th-and-3. Five of the nine times Army faced that down-and-distance situation, it punted. The Black Knights also attempted two field goals (going 2-for-2), and went for it twice (succeeding both times).

Army led by at least a touchdown all five times it punted on 4th-and-3. The Black Knights also led by at least 7 points all four times it punted on 4th-and-4, and led by a TD the one time it punted on 4th-and-5.

The line of scrimmage for the four times Army went for it on 4th-and-3, 4th-and-4, or 4th-and-5:  its own 32, the opposition 47, the opposition 28, and the opposition 26. The Black Knights averaged 22.25 yards on those four plays (with one TD). 

That 4th-down play on its own 32 came in the season opener at Duke. Trailing 31-14 in the fourth quarter, Army gained 13 yards on 4th-and-3. This could be considered more of a “desperation” decision, as opposed to most of the other down-and-distance calls Monken made during the campaign.

I also decided to see how many yards Army gained on its successful 4th-and-1 and 4th-and-2 plays, just to see how many “explosive” plays the Black Knights garnered. There were not a lot (although the 52-yard gain against Air Force came in handy, as the Cadets scored on the next play):

  • 4th-and-1, opp 35: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, own 34: 3 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 21: 4 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 8: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 34: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 49: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, opp 15: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-2, opp 46: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 46: 14 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 10: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 32: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-2, opp 2: 2 yards (TD)
  • 4th-and-2, opp 9: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 42: 52 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 49: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-2, opp 32: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 34: 14 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 25: 5 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 17: 3 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 27: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 2: 2 yards (TD)
  • 4th-and-1, opp 31: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, own 44: 5 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 14: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 35: 3 yards

That 4th-and-1 play from its own 17-yard line came at Buffalo, with 1:05 remaining in the first half and Army leading 21-7.

What Monken and Army did last season may start to become a trend. This statistic was published following last year’s regular season (but prior to the bowl games):

Teams are going for it on fourth down an average of 1.683 times per game during the 2018 season, which is by far the highest rate over the last 10 years. Overall, it’s a 22.8 percent increase from the 2009 season when teams went for it on fourth down 1.371 times per game.

Of course, that average doesn’t apply evenly to teams. Army went for it on fourth down 2.769 times per game, which is obviously higher than average — but even higher when considering the percentage of fourth downs faced, because of the way the Black Knights limited possessions. Army went for it 44.4% of the time on fourth down.

This interactive chart includes similar numbers for all of the FBS teams. It’s a very interesting (and well-constructed) graphic.

(Of note, there is a small error in its stats for Army; I believe that is because a field goal attempted on 3rd down at the end of the first half against Liberty was counted as a 4th down situation.)

That graphic accompanies this solid article focusing on Washington State’s 4th-down tendencies under Mike Leach.

The Citadel went for it on fourth down 36.9% of the time on fourth down last season. That was the second-highest rate in the SoCon, behind only VMI (39.5%).

Davidson went for it 55.6% of the time, by a wide margin the highest percentage in D-1. Kennesaw State ranked 2nd in FCS (43.6%), while VMI was 6th, The Citadel 8th, and Samford 11th.

In case you were wondering (because I was), Davidson averaged just two punts per game, fewest in FCS. The Wildcats only attempted four field goals all season, tied for second-fewest (with Jacksonville) in the sub-division. Only Presbyterian (three) attempted fewer field goals in D-1.

Towson’s 25.3% rate ranked 23rd. The Tigers did not really punt that often, but they attempted 29 field goals, tied for second-most in FCS (only Arkansas-Pine Bluff tried more).

Charleston Southern (14.0%) was 100th in go-for-it rate. The Buccaneers had only 14 fourth-down conversion attempts in 2018.

Another 2019 opponent for the Bulldogs, Elon, had a go-for-it rate of 18.9%, which was 68th nationally, and slightly below the FCS average (20.6%).

What follows is a table of all the teams in the Southern Conference. This statistic includes all games, including non-conference contests:

Team 4th down go for it rate
VMI 39.5%
The Citadel 36.9%
Samford 32.5%
Wofford 22.9%
Western Carolina 19.5%
Chattanooga 18.6%
Furman 17.8%
East Tennessee State 16.0%
Mercer 12.7%

There is clearly a difference in approach among the league teams. For example, Mercer (112th nationally) only attempted 10 fourth-down conversions all season. Part of that may have had to do with the Bears’ outstanding punt unit, as Mercer led FCS in net punting in 2018.

In the interest of equal time, it should be pointed out that generally conservative decision-making can be successful, too.

As mentioned earlier, Georgia Southern took this path last season (12.4% “go for it” rate), and proceeded to win 10 games in a bounce-back season. Excellence in other facets of the game justified a more punt-driven philosophy. Just to highlight two areas of superiority:  GSU placekicker Tyler Bass was 19 for 21 on field goal attempts, and the Eagles only committed five turnovers all year (with no interceptions).

Two of the three lowest rates in the “go for it” category in FCS were James Madison (7.1%, lowest in the sub-division) and North Dakota State (8.5%). It didn’t seem to be a problem. Teams that frequently dominate games usually don’t have to take many risks.

Maine would never have been described as dominant last season. That said, the Black Bears won 10 games anyway, despite a 4th down “go for it” rate of just 13.6%, leading FCS in total punts (96, by far the most in FCS). The flagship school of the Pine Tree State parlayed an outstanding run defense (best in the nation) and gritty situational football into the undisputed CAA title.

It isn’t easy to win a road playoff game with double-digit totals in both punts and penalties (11 each), but that is exactly what Maine did last year at Weber State. The Black Bears did not attempt a fourth down conversion in that contest (and were only 3 for 15 on third down conversion attempts). However, Weber State was held to -1 yard rushing (a total that includes sacks).

Basically, there are a lot of ways to win a football game.

I’ll wrap this up with a re-post of my recommended fourth down decision chart for The Citadel. This is unchanged from last season.

4th-down decision chart

Assorted explanations and observations:

– There are six colors represented on the chart. Three of them are self-explanatory — green (go for it), yellow (field goal attempt), and red (punt).

– Another color, light green, indicates an area where the coach has to decide whether to go for it or attempt a field goal. This is dependent on game conditions, ability of the kicker, etc. Obviously, a chart like this should vary at least slightly for each game.

– The field goal parameters are based on a field goal unit with average accuracy and a realistic distance capability limit of 52 yards. Last year was obviously much better from a field goal kicking perspective for The Citadel, but I decided not to further adjust for accuracy due to sample size issues.

– There are two other color areas on the chart to discuss. One (which is light blue) is called “General’s Choice” and named after (of course) General.

This is a section in which the Bulldogs’ statistics from their most recent seasons tend to suggest that punting is probably the percentage play. The sample size is limited, however, and some available statistics suggest that going for it may be a reasonable decision.

– There is also a gray section that I named “Boo Territory”, after the reportedly more hyper and aggressive of the school’s two mascots.

Most of the time, punting is the play in this section. There are a surprising number of analytical sources which would advocate going for it in this area, though.

The Citadel’s historic statistical profile (“historic” meaning the last few years under Mike Houston/Brent Thompson) doesn’t truly justify that level of aggression, however. That is why the section isn’t green (or even light blue).

On the other hand, going for it in Boo Territory could be a game-changer — and faking a punt in this area could also be a consideration.

The season is here! The season is here!

We’re all grateful for that, so much so that we won’t even mind our team punting in opposition territory on fourth and short.

(Okay, maybe not that grateful.)