Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: taking advantage of 4th down

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, this time I’m focusing on how to increase offensive productivity with a fully realized 4th down “go for it” philosophy. That isn’t a radical or new concept, but I just wanted to discuss the advantages a team can accrue on other downs when it has a high 4th down go rate.

First, links to other posts I’ve recently written in the leadup to the 2021 fall campaign:

As usual, I’ll start with the statistical spreadsheet for The Citadel’s spring 2021 season, which I’ll be referencing at times throughout:

The Citadel, 2021 Spring Football

Of note for this discussion, one of the tabs on that spreadsheet lists all decisions made on 4th down by The Citadel (and its opponents) in conference action; another catalogs short-yardage plays and results, including those on 4th down; and there is also a tab dedicated to down-and-distance plays by the Bulldogs and their opponents, broken down by run and pass.

Let’s start with the down-and-distance numbers. The Citadel in spring 2021, on offensive plays from scrimmage:

  • Rushed 85.6% of the time (all plays)
  • Rushed 87.1% of the time on 1st down
  • Rushed 88.0% of the time on 2nd-and-short (3 yards or less)
  • Rushed 94.0% of the time on 2nd-and-medium (4 to 6 yards)
  • Rushed 96.3% of the time on 3rd-and-short (2 yards or less)
  • Rushed 89.2% of the time on 3rd-and-medium (3 or 4 yards)

Those aren’t surprising percentages, of course. That is the nature of the triple option offense. On standard downs, The Citadel is going to run the football. It will run the football a lot on passing downs, too.

(“Standard” in this case means downs that aren’t considered expected passing downs in a regular offensive system.)

One thing that can be said about the Bulldogs under Brent Thompson is that the playcalling, from a run-pass perspective, has been consistent. Eerily consistent.

For example, take a gander at the numbers in conference games from his first season as head coach (2016) and the most recent campaign (spring 2021):

  • 2016: 494 rushing plays, 83 passing plays
  • 2021: 492 rushing plays, 83 passing plays

It doesn’t get much closer than that.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the results from those passing plays were not exactly the same. The adjusted yards per pass attempt for those seasons:

  • 2016: 7.41
  • 2021: 2.98

That is not a typo. When sacks allowed are included in the passing numbers (as they should be), The Citadel averaged fewer than three yards per pass play last spring. 

The Bulldogs were sacked on 17.07% of their pass plays, by far the highest rate suffered by any offense in the SoCon (Mercer was second at 10.45%; Furman 3rd at 8.81%). Samford threw 226 more passes than The Citadel, but its quarterbacks were only sacked three more times.

The Citadel’s sack rate allowed was 16.55% when including its four games in the fall. Among all 97 FCS schools that played at least once in the fall and/or spring, that was the third-worst percentage overall, with Cal Poly and Kennesaw State the only other two teams with worse rates. Kennesaw State is also a triple option outfit, while Cal Poly was transitioning out of a triple option offense into a spread offense under new coach Beau Baldwin.

Triple option teams do tend to be on the wrong end of this statistic, for a bunch of obvious reasons. In the FBS, Navy had the worst sack rate allowed (15.65%), while Army was 10th-worst (10.59%). On the other hand, Air Force (3.17%) had one of the lowest rates in the country.

The average sack rate for FCS teams (F20/S21) was 6.77%. The average in the SoCon this spring was 7.39%, a figure reduced to 6.88% if The Citadel’s totals aren’t included.

One major reason for the Bulldogs’ high sack rate on offense was that a significant percentage of The Citadel’s pass plays occurred in the 4th quarter, with the Bulldogs trailing. In the final period, The Citadel was 10 for 27 through the air, with one interception and nine sacks allowed.

A team that doesn’t throw the football very often was largely ineffective in the passing game when the opponent knew a pass was probably coming. This is not a shock to informed observers. It is also not a shock to uniformed observers.

The real issue, it seems to me, is that such a large percentage of the Bulldogs’ aerial attack came on obvious passing downs, instead of on standard downs.

The Citadel attempted 32 pass plays on 1st down or 2nd-and-short. Those are generally not passing downs, and so the element of surprise would normally be quite beneficial for the Bulldogs.

All but seven of those pass plays, however, came while A) trailing in the 4th quarter — often by multiple scores — or B) down 10+ points in one of the other three quarters. There was nothing unexpected about most of those plays.

For the record, here are the seven pass plays for The Citadel on 1st down/2nd-and-short in true “standard down” situations:

  • Against Mercer, down 7-0 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at TC 45 (result: incomplete)
  • Against Western Carolina, down 7-6 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at WCU 39 (result: incomplete)
  • Against ETSU, tied 7-7 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at ETSU 49 (result: 44-yard gain to set up TD)
  • Against ETSU, down 21-14 in the 3rd quarter, first-and-10 pass at TC 25 (result: 7-yard gain)
  • Against ETSU, down 21-14 in the 3rd quarter, first-and-15 pass at TC 31 (result: interception)
  • Against Furman, first play from scrimmage, first-and-10 pass at TC 25 (result: incompletion)
  • Against Furman, ahead 13-7 in the 2nd quarter, first-and-10 pass at Furman 40 (result: incompletion)

To be honest, the Bulldogs were not overly efficient on those occasions, either. Completing 2 of 7 passes for 51 yards (with a pick) is nothing to write home about. On a positive note, 7.29 yards per attempt isn’t half-bad, although it clearly needs to be a lot better for such plays.

The larger point is that The Citadel needs to be a bigger threat in the passing game, regardless of its status as a triple option offense. It needs to do so in order to keep defenses honest (which will also help the rushing attack), and to increase its number of explosive plays. 

I believe that the best way to do that, besides improvement in execution, is by throwing the ball more on standard downs. I don’t mean that the Bulldogs should be throwing 15 more passes per game or anything like that, though.

I think The Citadel should take advantage of its pugnaciousness on 4th down when calling plays on other downs, particularly first and second down. Basically, once the Bulldogs are past a certain point on the field (probably their own 30), the assumption should be that they are going to go for it on any 4th down play of 4 yards to go or less.

Instead of having three downs to make 10 yards, and almost always trying to grind out three runs to get there, a pass play on first down, or second-and-short (or medium), should be employed a little more often. If it doesn’t work, there are still three other downs available to move the chains. 

That should be the mindset.

Now, I freely admit that I am not a coach. I do not claim to have an advanced knowledge of the game (although I am a former championship football player¹). There are certainly a lot of things I don’t know about the program, especially related to personnel. I’m merely a dude with a computer; a less witty Statler.

It is just my unenlightened opinion that throwing the football on select first-and-second down plays a few more times per game (maybe once every other possession, or twice every three possessions) could open things up. The Citadel really needs more of those long gainers on offense, too; 22 plays of 20+ yards in eight contests is not enough.

Only three of those big plays came via the pass. Incidentally, all three of them came on first-and-10.

I’ve actually written about this concept before, but I believe that with the gradual increase in scoring in recent years, creating big plays is even more crucial to sustained offensive success. In the current game environment, a pure “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense has its limitations (and The Citadel is playing all 11 of its regular-season games this season on artificial turf, so there won’t be a lot of dust to kick up).

Having said all that, it must be duly noted that long, time-consuming drives should and will remain the Bulldogs’ bread-and-butter. As ESPN college football writer Bill Connelly has stated:

The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.

Negotiate the ball down the field. Pump it in there. Just keep matriculating the ball down the field. Yes, sir.

There are less than 50 days until the season starts. We’re getting closer.

 

¹City of Orangeburg (SC) Parks and Recreation Department — Pee Wee Division

One Response

  1. statistic of biggest concern: 40% third down efficiency

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