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COLUMN

Is college football ready to scrap the punt?

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Coaches won't follow Arkansas high school lead

Thursday, September 27, 2012 - 4:23 am

Purdue coach Danny Hope is a confident guy, but he has limits.

Never punting goes beyond them.

“If I thought it would work,” he said, “we'd certainly go in that direction.”

In these days when complex offenses stress defenses more than ever before, when you've got spread attacks and no-huddle approaches and uptempo styles that can turn even the best defensive schemes into mush, something has to give.

Conservative coaching isn't one of them. At least, it's not at the college level. When you face fourth down inside your own 10-yard line, you punt. Case closed. Going for it isn't an option.

Or is it?

“You'd have to be confident your offense could convert on fourth down and really confident your defense could stop them if you gave them the ball at that point on the field,” Hope said.

You can find that confidence at one high-powered high school program, Arkansas' Pulaski Academy in Little Rock. Coach Kevin Kelley has taken the punt out of his playbook. He goes for it on fourth down every time unless the score is so lopsided he doesn't want to run it up.

Kelley goes for it whether it's fourth-and-one or fourth-and-31. He goes for it when Pulaski has the ball at midfield, on its own 20-yard line or even inside its own 10-yard line.

From 2007 to 2011, Pulaski punted a total of five times, and didn't punt at all in 14 games in 2008, when it went 13-1 and won the state championship. It didn't punt in 2010, when it went 13-2 and finished as the state runner-up.

During that overall stretch, Pulaski converted between 46 percent and 59 percent of its fourth-down situations. It also won at least nine games, won a state championship and contended for a title every year.

Risky? It's a matter of perception. About 10 years ago a Harvard professor analyzed every college football game for a three-year period. It showed if a team takes possession inside an opponent's 10-yard line, it scores 92 percent of the time. If it takes possession between an opponent's 30- and 40-yard line, it scores 77 percent of the time. Because high schools average about 30 net yards on a punt, Kelley figures punting from inside the 10-yard line only cuts opponents' chances to score by 15 percent.

In other words, his offense has a more than three times better chance of converting fourth down than his defense does of stopping opponents from scoring.

So if you coach by the numbers, it's a no-brainer.

Of course, that's at the high school level, where the talent level discrepancies can be huge. There's more parity in college, more pressure to win, more consequences if you don't.

And yet, University of California economist David Romer's 2005 study of three NFL seasons showed that there were 1,068 fourth down situations in which teams, mathematically, would have been better off going for it rather than punting. Teams either punted or tried a field goal in all but nine of those situations.

In other words, when the choice is take a chance or punt, coaches are ultra-conservative.

Hope isn't a conservative coach. Last year the Boilers converted 4-of-9 fourth-down situations. This season they're 4-for-4. They've punted 12 times for a 42.5-yard net average.

“The closer the opponent gets to the goal line,” Hope said, “the odds of him scoring increase significantly. I certainly wouldn't go for it on fourth and long if I had 70 yards to go to get a touchdown. I can't say I buy 100 percent into (Kelley's) philosophy.

“I do like to take a chance now and then, but it has to be a calibrated chance and something we've practiced over and over and feel we have a good chance of making it happen.”

Louisiana-Monroe took that approach when it upset Arkansas earlier this month by, in part, going for it on a lot of fourth downs.

A lot, by the way, wasn't all of them.

IU coach Kevin Wilson also likes to take fourth-down chances, although not at Kelley's level. IU is 5-for-9 on fourth downs this season. Last year, Wilson's first as a head coach, the Hoosiers were 11-for-21.

Wilson's offensive coordinator is Seth Littrell, whose coaching background includes time with the colorful, and offensively wide open, Mike Leach.

“There's not a lot of head coaches who would want to go for it all the time,” Littrell said. “I'm not saying it wouldn't work, but I want to see somebody try it. I want to see the first guy try it. I'd enjoy watching it.”

Sharing that enjoyment would be Kevin Johns, IU's assistant offensive coordinator. He sees some merit in never punting.

“As a play caller it would be fun because you'd know you'd have four cracks every time to get 10 yards.

“Would it work at this level? I don't know. When you look at the level of offenses and defenses you face, you're running a big risk if you give the offense the ball on this side of mid-field.

“High school is different. It's a very unique theory and (Kelley) has had a lot of success with it, but I'm not quite sure about doing it in college. You'd be rolling the dice. Anytime you're on your side of the 50, it would take a lot of guts.”

Added Littrell: “It would change your third-down calls for sure. With third-and-medium or third-and-long, you wouldn't always be trying to get a first down. It opens up your playbook. You'd set defenses up in a different way.

“There are some pluses to it, but there would definitely be some minuses.”

Those minuses ratchet up the pressure on the defensive coordinator, who has to get his unit to hold if the conversion attempt fails and the opponent has great field position.

“If you feel good about your offense and the play call and think you've got a reasonably good chance to make it, I'm all for it,” IU co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. “What we talk about on defense is that it doesn't matter where the series starts, it's our job to get off the field.”

Wilson consults his defensive coaches before going for it on fourth down.

“He'll ask, 'What do you think?'” Mallory said. “I say, if you feel good about the call, go for it. We're behind you.”

Behind, of course, is the safe place to be when the gamble goes bad.

“I'm not sure I'm at that level from a confidence standpoint for my team, or any team, for that matter,” Hope said.

Confidence, you see, has limits.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.