Mississippi State has attempted more fourth down conversions than any other program through three games this season. Photo by: cfbstats.com
September 16, 2013 10:03:33 AM
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State senior punter Baker Swedenburg often jokes that he's the only football player on the roster hoping he never gets a chance to play.
If MSU coach Dan Mullen gets his way and keeps using his gambling instincts, Swedenburg may get his wish more often than not.
The Bulldogs fifth-year coach has taken to the idea of staying with his offense on fourth down more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision program through three weeks of play. MSU (1-2) has attempted 12 fourth-down conversions in three games, which is two more than any other program in the country.
Mullen took his biggest gamble last Saturday when his team was up 20-17 late in the fourth quarter in an attempt to close out the game. Mullen and the MSU offense were trying to keep the clock running late in the fourth quarter. With about three minutes to go, MSU had a fourth-and-1 situation at it's own 29-yard-line and the Bulldogs suddenly didn't send Swedenburg on the field. The situation, with MSU up 20-17, was simple: win the game by keeping the drive alive or give Auburn instant field goal range with a failed conversion. The Bulldogs coach rolled the dice with sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott.
"I'm thinking here's an opportunity for us to go finish the on offense," Mullen said Sunday in his media teleconference. "I wanted to take some pressure off our defense. I wanted to put some responsibility on the offensive line. That's probably more of veteran unit on our team so we felt like we had a good call. We made some great defensive stops but I didn't want to rely on our young defense to win the game for us."
MSU did convert on a shotgun quarterback draw by the 240-pound Prescott and MSU was able to move the ball for another 90 seconds before punting three plays later.
"The looks they were giving us out of that formation, we were confident we would have a good play out of that situation," Mullen said.
This is a new gambling instinct for Mullen, who has been historically more inclined to allow his defense and special teams to win the game late. Before Auburn's come-from-behind 24-20 victory Saturday, MSU was 29-0 under Mullen when leading after three quarters.
In a 2012 story, The New York Times cited a paper by David Romer, a professor of political economy at the University of California at Berkeley, that has become "the gospel for the antipunting faction."
Romer's determination, after studying punt data from 1998 to 2004, was that teams should never punt when facing fourth down with less than four yards to go for the first, regardless of where they are on the field. Other analysis has suggested that teams should never punt from inside their opponent's forty-yard line. As a corollary, they should always go for a touchdown, rather than a field goal, from inside the five-yard line.
In his previous four years at MSU, Mullen has never seen the program rank in the top 40 in the country in fourth down conversions. Last season, the Bulldogs only attempted 21 fourth-down conversions in 13 games and they've already surpassed half that mark in the first month of the 2013 campaign.
"As a team, when we create a turnover and have momentum at midfield, you have to ask yourself 'is this going to be our best drive in the game at this moment?'," Mullen said. "Or it could be that we're we have our back to the wall and we have a chance to finish a drive to get to midfield. When you're playing in the SEC, I don't think you're going to count on 98-yard drives."
Major programs like Oregon, currently ranked No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll, have become famous for not punting in traditional situations such as when possession is deep in their own territory.
The Ducks program, led by current Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, were in the Top 10 in the country in fourth down conversion attempts each of the last three seasons. This statistics is despite the fact Oregon has been consistently ahead in its games during a three-year run where the program won 36 of 40 games.
"I think there's fallacy and reality. I don't think very often we went for it on fourth down on our side of the field. It would be once or twice a season, depending on the situation," Kelly said this month to the Philadelphia Daily News. "If you don't have a guy that can kick a long field goal, what are you going to do when the ball is on the 37-yard line?" Kelly said. "Will you kick a 52-yarder or are you going to punt it? If [the punt] goes into the end zone, you have a net of 17 yards. Or do you go for it because you have a good defense and you're not averse to putting them on the field on the 37-yard line?"