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MSU going for it more on fourth down


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- Meet Dan Mullen -- Mississippi State's fourth-down gambler. 


The Bulldogs' fifth-year senior coach has stayed with his offense on fourth down more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision program through three weeks. MSU (1-2) has attempted 12 fourth-down conversions, which is two more than any other program in the country. 


"When you see your coach have confidence in your offense to get it done in a pressure situation like that, it give you that extra boost or extra juice you need to do well," MSU junior wide receiver Jameon Lewis said Saturday. 


The Bulldogs most risky fourth-down attempt against Auburn on Saturday came when MSU was trying to keep the clock running late in the fourth quarter. With about three minutes to go and MSU leading 20-17, the Bulldogs had a fourth-and-1 at their 29-yard line. Instead of sending senior punter Baker Swedenburg on the field, MSU opted to maintain possession and to try to deny Auburn a chance to get the ball back. 


"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." 


MSU converted on a shotgun quarterback draw to 240-pound sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott and moved 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. 


Despite converting the fourth down, MSU couldn't stop Auburn from going 88 yards in the final 1 minute, 56 seconds to earn the victory. Still, Prescott ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns in part because Auburn consistently sent its linebackers horizontally to chase MSU's speed options, leaving space between the tackles for Prescott to work. 


"The middle of the field and the ground game for myself comes with the explosiveness we have in the sweep plays we run with the backs and receivers," Prescott said. "Eventually I'm the only once left uncovered out there and then I'm able to get a big gain." 


Last season, Mullen was more willing to attempt short-yardage conversions on fourth down, even on his end of the field, because of the packages designed for Prescott in the mold of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. In certain scenarios, MSU starting quarterback Tyler Russell would know to run off the field for Prescott to attempt a running play. This season, MSU is utilizing the fourth-down calls as part of the normal overall offense. Prescott, who has earned his first starts in the past two games, has capitalized on his running ability and helped the Bulldogs convert on fourth down. 


"It is just trying to find that balance because no matter what the down is, when you can run, you open up the pass," Prescott said Saturday. "It is just something we are trying to do to find balance. A lot of teams use the handoff, but we rely on the quarterback to find balance." 


In Mullen's first four years at MSU, the Bulldogs never have ranked in the top 40 in the country in fourth-down conversions. Last season, the Bulldogs only attempted 21 fourth-down conversions in 13 games. This season, they're more than halfway to that mark in the first month. 


"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?' " Mullen said, "or it could be 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." 


MSU was 2-for-2 on in short-yardage situations on fourth down at Auburn. It was 3-for-4 on fourth down in a season-opening loss to then-No. 13 Oklahoma State. 


Major programs like Oregon, which is No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll, have become famous for not punting in traditional situations, even when they're deep in their territory. Under former coach Chip Kelly, who has moved on to become head coach of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, Oregon ranked in the top 10 in the country in fourth-down conversion attempts each of the past three seasons. Kelly went for so many fourth downs even though his teams were ahead in most of their games and won 36 of 40 games in a three-year run. 


"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? 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?" 


In the spring of 2011, Mullen traveled to Oregon to watch Kelly, who his considers a friend in the coaching business, and the Ducks run what then was the nation's best offense statistically. 


"Chip's a great football coach," Mullen said. "I like some of the stuff they do. I thought we practiced just as fast as they did." 


Mullen spent the day at the Oregon football facility talking with coaches, including current Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, on their philosophies, including their thoughts on going for it on fourth down. 


"I'm an information gatherer more than a releaser," Mullen said in 2011 about the trip. "I probably have gathered more than I've given up. I'm a taker." 


In 2012, The New York Times cited a paper by David Romer (PDF), a professor of political economy at the University of California at Berkeley, that has become "the gospel for the anti-punting 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 4 yards to go for the first down regardless of where they are on the field. Other analysis has suggested teams never should punt from inside their opponent's 40-yard line. As a corollary, they should always go for a touchdown, rather than a field goal, from inside the 5-yard line. 


"From different eras, there was a mind-set that playing the field-possession game is a good thing because it turned the ball over to the other team 40 yards away and allows them to make a mistake," former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said in the article. "Coaches, by nature, are a little bit defensive in their thinking."



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