N.C. State was faced with 11 fourth downs in Saturday's rout in Tallahassee. On eight occasions, including the first six fourth downs of the game, Dave Doeren elected to punt. One fourth down resulted in a shutout-abating field goal that cut the Noles' lead to 42-3. Just twice did Doeren elect to go for it on fourth down. Let's take a look at each fourth down decision:
Down 7-0 in the first quarter, facing fourth and four at his own 14, Doeren sent Wil Baumann out to boot it away. I am going to side with conventional coaching wisdom here. Wave the punt flag and hope maybe the returner muffs the thing. At this point you can't possibly know how bad things are about to get.
Down 14-0 in the first quarter, facing fourth and two at his own 29, Doeren again turns to the boot of Baumann to give the ball back to the Jameis Winston touchdown machine. And I thought to myself: ballgame. (I made a much more colorful comment that insulted the coach's manhood in the game thread. That was childish and sophomoric. As is this: seriously, grow a pair!)
To this point in the game, FSU had run five plays that gained 104 yards and resulted in two touchdowns. There was no evidence that the Pack could slow down the Seminoles, and a Pack offense that has sputtered against conference opponents was surely not going to climb out of a 21-0 hole. The only hope of competing was to convert here, hold the ball for a while to kill the doom momentum, and hopefully scratch out some points. This second punt was the white flag. The game was conceded with 9:56 to go in the first quarter.
Down 28-0 in the first quarter, Doeren sends out Baumann again on fourth and 11 from his own 37. With the possibility of competing nothing but a memory, might as well try to manage the blowout margin.
Down 35-0 in the second quarter, Doeren taps Baumann on the shoulder with the Pack facing a fourth and one from their 29. "Hi, team. I don't believe you can make one yard. How does that make you feel?"
Down 35-0 in the second quarter, Baumann rubs Icy Hot on his foot before punting it away with the Pack facing a fourth and 11 from their 15. Unless it is the last couple minutes of the fourth quarter, sure, kick it.
Down 42-0 in the second quarter, facing fourth and three on their 43 with 1:39 left in the half, the Pack...punt. God forbid you turn it over on downs here and give up that all important touchdown before the half, because 49-0 is so, so much different than 42-0.
At the half, N.C. State had seen six punting opportunities and took full advantage of all six. Baumann got his reps in and is ready for the rivalry game against UNC.
To me, three of those punts were highly questionable. Momentum is extremely hard to turn in a football game, especially on the road against an elite opponent. Down 14-0 after two explosive drives, Doeren has to recognize that the only way to stay in the game is to hold on to the ball. If you do not convert that fourth and two, they are going to score. It doesn't matter if they have to go 30 or 40 extra yards; with the way the game was going, it's about to be 21-0 if you give them the ball right back anywhere on the field. Two minutes and 54 second later, it was indeed 21-0.
Does State march down the field and make it 14-7 if it converts that fourth and short? Probably not. But if the Pack eats some clock and gets any points at all, even a field goal, maybe the massive weight of momentum and the compounding of gashing play after gashing play is somewhat negated and the final outcome remains in doubt for at least a little while longer. If the end result--a loss--is going to be the same either way, why not opt for the option that at least gives you the best opportunity to be competitive in the game for as long as possible. Isn't that--making decisions that give his team the best opportunity to compete--the coach's job?
The second questionable punt was the fourth and one from the 29. You're down 35-0. Once again, this is a total "I concede the game" move, a call for peace talks in the form of a pronate spheroid sent end over end again and again. Jimbo refused to come to the table to talk peace, calling for a fake punt (oh, sweet irony) after the Pack's next punt that led to FSU's sixth touchdown.
The third punt I have a problem with was the fourth and three boot just before the half. Brandon Mitchell sure looked rusty. It might have been nice to let him run the two-minute drill a bit just in case we need that down the line. And if you're destined to settle for a shutout-abating field goal when down by 42, might as well go for it in the first half. And that brings us to our next fourth down...
Down 42-0 in the third quarter, Doeren sends Niklas Sade out to attempt a 36-yard field goal on fourth and seven from the Nole 19. Ah, the classic coaching conventional wisdom of avoiding the shutout as though it matters whether you lose 70-0 or 70-3.
Down 42-3 in the third quarter, the Pack goes nowhere after recovering an onside kick (hey, now we're coaching to win!), and Doeren elects to punt facing a fourth and 12 at his 44 (hey, now we're coaching to manage the blowout!). You're nearly at midfield and down by 39; surely throwing one up for grabs Hail Mary style is a better choice here than kicking it.
Down 42-10 in the fourth quarter, Doeren opts to go on fourth and 12 from the FSU 36. A four-yard pass leaves the Pack well short, but without question this was the correct move. A punt gains you nothing any time you are down 32, but the particular place on the field means this spot should be a go nearly 100% of the time as there is so little to gain in terms of field position by punting and it's a bit too far for a field goal try unless you're down three, two, one, or tied with scant time remaining on the clock.
Down 42-10 in the fourth quarter, Doeren proves that he was in avoid the shutout mode earlier by eschewing a second Sade try for three on fourth and six from the FSU 21. Mitchell hits David Grinnage for a 12-yard gain and the Pack caps the drive with Shadrach Thornton's second rushing touchdown to make the score 42-17. Granted, by this time Winston was already signing autographs and the Noles may have had 60+ points had he remained in the game, but you can't help but wonder what the score might have been had Doeren been more aggressive earlier in the game.
Down 49-17 in the fourth quarter, Doeren lets Baumann show some leg one more time, punting it away on fourth and three from the State 25 with 39 seconds left. FSU was just going to take a knee if the Pack didn't convert, so why not try to work on late-game situations here and try to get some more points on the board? I guess Doeren was satisfied with "winning the second half" because you know, that's a thing, apparently. But I can see the logic in just trying to get out of there without anybody (else) getting hurt, so whatever on that last one.
The bottom line: whether it's Florida State or, sadly, Boston College, N.C. State was an underdog Saturday and will be a dog from here on out. Conventional coaching wisdom, especially when it involves waving the white flag of surrender on fourth and one, is not going to give this fragile Pack squad the confidence and momentum they need to find three more wins and get the extra bowl practices the rebuilding (can you rebuild, if nothing was really ever built in the first place?) program desperately needs to speed up the ETA of respectability.
Of perhaps greater concern than the white flag waving puntathon Saturday has been N.C. State's season-long trend of bogging down in the red zone (while opponents convert touchdowns at better than twice the Pack's rate). FSU went 4-for-4 on touchdown conversions in the red zone while the Pack managed a touchdown and a Sade three in their two trips inside the 20. Getting a touchdown even half of the time is actually an improvement for a Pack team that has managed just nine touchdowns in 22 trips inside the red zone, a TD conversion rate of just under 41% that ranks 121st out of 125 FBS programs. Conversely, the State defense has been at its worst when pinned against the end zone. The Pack have allowed 18 touchdowns in 21 opponent red zone trips, a TD conversion rate allowed of 86% that ranks next-to-dead-fucking-last in the country.
If the TD conversion rates were flipped and we assumed that opponents got three instead of seven on their red zone drives, the Pack would have outscored opponents 201-142 this season. As is, the Pack have been outscored 176-165. Of course assuming a near best case scenario for the Pack and the reverse for their opponents may be overreaching, but the disparity in success inside the 20 is definitely a large factor in the team's lackluster 3-4 record.
It would be a silver lining if this sort of thing is a patch of bad luck rather than a trend. It's really impossible to glean anything from years past due to personnel losses and a system change, but State ranked in the top half of the FBS at over a 60% red zone TD rate in each of the past two years. Defensively, the Pack ranked 60th and 51st the past two years in preventing opponent red zone TDs with opponent success rates falling at just under 60%.
So far in 2013, State averages 4.1 points per red zone trip while allowing 6.14 points to its opponents (assuming seven points for all touchdowns). If red zone touchdown conversion rates start to revert to the mean in the coming weeks, I feel a lot better about the Pack's chances of stealing a win or three. But if the red zone disparity is more than bad luck and, instead, emblematic of problems with coaching, personnel, and scheme, it is going to be very hard to outscore opponents. The Pack will either need lots of explosive plays from scrimmage (while not giving up any), or they will need to get to the red zone about 50% more often than their opponents to win football games.