Fourth and Short in the MAC Part 3: Coffin Corners and Bad Field Goals

After cataloging 1200 4th down plays. There are a lot of punts and field goals in that set. In total there are 890 of them. It would be a shame to not look at the largest chunk of data that I gathered. In 682 punts last season there has to be valuable information in there.

Net Punts and New Punting Stats

When I recorded punt data I recorded the yard line that the receiving team started at after returning the punt. Essentially, all of my punt data is net punts. Punters are a major part of the net punt yards but the coverage team is very responsible for net yards as well. Also, looking at net yards is the important part. If I’m a coach and I want to know what to do on a 4th down, I want to know where the other team is going to get the ball, not just how far my punter can boom it.

Situational Punting

All punts are not equal. Some punts need to flip the field from deep and some need to pin the opponent deep from mid field. I drew the line at the teams own 40 yard line. Inside a teams own 40 yard line I don’t think there is a punter in the MAC that has to hold back on the punt due to a touchback.

From deep in their own territory, the MAC average is a 39.8 net yards per punt. That’s not bad. Especially since that average is weighed down by Buffalo who averaged 30.2 net yards. Their starting punter was hurt for the majority of the season and used a quarterback to get the punting done.

Kent State and Northern Illinois had the most effective punt teams in the MAC from behind their own 40. Both averaged over 43 net yards per punt. Toledo had the longest punt from back here. Against Colorado State they launched a 72 yard punt.

From Buffalo’s perspective having a backup punter probably helped them make aggressive decisions. They had a top half of the MAC offense and the worst punt team. In part 1 the Bulls were the most aggressive team. That’s not a mistake.

New Stat: Percent Net Yards

A punter lining up a kick around midfield is probably not looking to boom it out there as far as he can. Net yards are the wrong stat to use to evaluate a punt team trying to pin a team deep. Since I had every punt’s data at my fingertips, I figured out how many yards were available and found out how many they converted into net yards. I only looked at punts from past a team’s own 40 yard line.

Percent net yards is born.

The best punt team in the MAC, all things considered goes to the Ohio Bobcats. Their average net yards is not the top in the MAC but they were 1.5 yards different. From past the 40 they converted 90% of the available yards and gave their opponents an average starting field position of their own 12. From 50+ they weren’t as efficient in their conversion but they stuck their opponents back at their own 10.

Luckily, the number of punts from past midfield is a small group of plays for most teams. Bowling Green lead the way with 15 total punts from opponent’s territory. One punt a game is way more than anyone would like to concede but 21% of Bowling Green’s total punts came in opponent territory. That’s not great.

Central Michigan has no finesse to their punting unit and not a ton of power in it either. The Chippewas made up for it by punting fewer times than anyone else in the conference. They only punted 38 times all season. The next lowest was Eastern Michigan with 45 punts

Field Goals: Points are good, but not close to automatic

College kickers. Lining up for a field goal is always a risk. Some more than others. Not every team has a kicker that is going to get drafted like Miami’s Sam Sloman. He changes the equation that most teams have to figure when faced with a 4th down inside the 35.

The Romer report states that when the chance to score a touchdown on that play or subsequently in the drive is 18 percent or higher, the team with the decision should go for a touchdown. His analysis went on to say that trying for a touchdown as opposed to a field goal increase’s a team chance to win by 3%. I’ll steal his line for this: “Which is very large for a single play.”

Add in that field goals only hold so much value because of the low points scored and the field position surrendered after a kick off. This is not to say don’t kick field goals. They have a place but a team will cost themselves over the course of a season kicking too many field goals.

With this all established, being aggressive is good, a field goal only holds so much value, a team is never forced to kick a field goal, why do Bowling Green, Buffalo, and Western Michigan have sub 60% field goal percentages?

I think the answer can be case by case. The Broncos struggled all season to find consistency in their field goal kickers. It’s the same story for Bowling Green and looks like they knew it. They only kicked ten all year. Their longest made field goal in the year was 32 yards.

Buffalo struggled from way out but kept attempting the long field goals. One attempt was a 4th and 1 with 1 minute left in the game. That’s excusable. The next shortest yards to go was a 4th and 7. Aside from the 4th and 19, the report written by David Romer might tell Buffalo to go for it in the rest of the situations.

As the yards to go increases, the conversion rate goes down relatively slowly. In his NFL data, a 4th and 1 converts at a 64% rate, 4th and 5 at a 44% rate, and 4th and 10 at a 34% rate. It’s a steep drop off but not nearly as steep as coaches treat it. I can’t find the rate in my data, mainly due to sample size. Faced with a long conversion attempt on 4th down, every team punts. Romer’s data was done on 3rd downs to get a larger sample of ‘go for it’ attempts.

So taking his numbers as representative of the MAC, which may or may not be true, Buffalo has a 34% chance of getting a first down in those drives. The jump in the value of the field position is the critical number. A field goal becomes easier and more likely, a touchdown after a first down from the 20 yard line is much more likely as well. A turnover is the most likely event but the value of having the ball at your own 30 is low. The value of a field goal is limited because of the kick off and a missed kick is the same as a turnover. Since the miss is very likely and the punishment for a turn over is low Buffalo should go for it.

Kicking field goals in the dead zone around the 35 yard line is where it holds the most value but a great college kicker is needed to make it worth it.

Bad Field Goals

Everyone has heard the saying this team “isn’t going to win with field goals.” It’s true.  Four well executed but stalled out drives that ended in made field goals can be erased by two big plays. Still, some coaches decide that 3 points is good enough.

I don’t think this needs a definition but here it goes. You know when your team is losing by 7 with three minutes left in the game and they decide to kick a field goal on 4th and 2 from the 12? That’s a bad field goal. Still a one possesion game, a field goal still isn’t enough to tie or take the lead, gives the ball back to the other team, and no time left. Not a single redeeming quality unless it covers the spread and you’re into that kind of thing.

They aren’t usually as obvious as the situation above but we’ve all been there. To find the bad field goals I wanted to start with attempts in short yards to go situations. There were 31 field goals kicked with three yards to go or less. The worst rushing team in college football was Akron. When they handed the ball to a running back, they averaged 2.7 yards. That’s terrible. But even with that, an average rush converted all of these conversion attempts.

In the 31 kicks, not all are bad. Game situation changes the perception a lot. WMU was up 32 points against an FCS opponent with 9 minutes left on the 2 yard line. Kick that field goal. Some of the bad ones are being from being conservative early in games that the MAC team isn’t supposed to win.

Miami at Ohio State, in close with nothing to lose

Miami scored on a safety against Ohio State. They took the drive after to get all the way down to the opponent’s 3 yard line. On a 4th and 3 with 7 minutes left in the 1st quarter they opted for the field goal.

The Redhawks have nothing to lose and everything to gain here. An early 9-0 lead opens the eyes of Saturday scoreboard watchers. A 5-0 lead is interesting but when it’s 7-5 two minutes later, the upset watch is over.  The game ended up being as bad as could be for a team who just wanted to keep it respectable. If being conservative was driven by the fear of a blowout then mission failed.

Miami, Kent State, and Ohio make up 17 of the 31 kicks on the list. The MAC East seems to be a touch more conservative, or they have more faith in their kickers, than the MAC West.

If Ohio was confident in their run game, these wouldn’t be field goals

Ohio did it twice in their game against Ball State. They kicked second quarter field goals on a 4th and goal from the 2 and a 4th and 1 from the 5. The game ended in a pretty comfortable win but even converting one would’ve put them in a better position in the game. Also, they averaged 5.6 yards per carry in this game.

Eastern Michigan kicking for points for the sake of points

The worst field goal of the year is a tough call. There wasn’t one stand out, egregious field goal. In my estimation, the worst goes to Eastern Michigan against Western Michigan at home. The Eagles were down by 4 at the end of the 3rd quarter. They had worked the ball into a 4th and 3 on the 11 yard line.

The field goal was good, but what did it accomplish? They were still behind, trailing by one possession still. Shaq Vann was good for more than 5 yards per carry and their quarterback, Preston Hutchinson, finished 35 for 41 passing on the day. The Broncos were not prepared for an air attack and it showed.

If they go for it and fail the Broncos get the ball back in worse position than if they recieved a kick off. A conversion or a touchdown really puts pressure on the Broncos.

Funny thing is, it didn’t matter. The Eagles won anyway. This whole series has showed me aggressive decision making doesn’t lead to wins. One of the most conservative coaches won the league and the other took the lead for most wins in conference history. I do think it can give a team an edge that shows itself in tight games and is mostly evident over the course of a season and not so noticeable game by game.

It’s like college football is a random game played by young men with an odd shaped ball.

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