Possession is nine-tenths of football, yet coaches traditionally have relied on the kicking game even when in favorable field position.
Punting is like bunting, a safe strategy that prevents second-guessing from traditional thinkers. It’s also, often, like bunting, stupid.
Saturday, the Gophers played Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium with a chance to win four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years. They barely outgained the Nittany Lions, and did little on offense in the second half.
The Gophers won 24-10, not because of every-down dominance, but because they aced every fourth-down test, physically and strategically.
Jerry Kill looks and talks like an old-school coach and he runs an old-school offense, but his fourth-down philosophy should make him the keynote speaker at an advanced analytics convention.
“Our philosophy is to be an aggressive football team, but we’ve also got to be smart,” Kill said.
Kill and his coaching staff have distinguished themselves during the winning streak with intelligent game plans and in-game decisions. Saturday, they made two decisions on fourth down that positioned them to play on New Year’s Day.
The Gophers held a 3-0 lead in the first quarter when they drove from their 4-yard line to the Penn State 28, where they faced fourth-and-2.
Kicker Chris Hawthorne already had made a 45-yard field goal, on fourth-and-9 on the Gophers’ first drive, and he had the wind at his back. Kill didn’t hesitate to go for the first down this time.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called for a pass. Philip Nelson threw a strike to tight end Maxx Williams for 24 yards. Two plays later, David Cobb scored from the 1, and the Gophers led 10-0.
“We ran that play a few times the last couple of weeks and it’s been open,” Williams said. “I knew it would be me or the outside receiver, depending on the safety.”
In the second quarter, the Gophers faced fourth-and-8 from the Penn State 29. Now heading toward the North end zone, they faced a wind causing the beer tents to flap like hummingbird wings.
Instead of trying a 47-yard field goal with a high degree of difficulty, knowing he wouldn’t be second-guessed for such a routine strategy, Kill again went for it. This time, Nelson completed an 11-yard pass to the fast-rising Donovahn Jones.
Four plays later, Nelson scored and the Gophers led 17-7.
If Kill had employed traditional strategy and tried field goals in those two instances, the Gophers probably would have scored zero or three points on those two drives, instead of 14.
Those decisions might have won the game.
“It’s situational,” Kill said. “We have six or eight fourth-down calls and we believe in them.”
Statistical models have proved that football teams would benefit from going for it on fourth down instead of punting or trying long field goals. Most coaches who have yet to employ the strategy shy away from the risk.
As usual, statistical models merely reflect common sense. Touchdowns are better than field goals. Keeping the ball is better than handing it to your opponent. And when a team lacks the raw speed to score from anywhere, maintaining long drives is critical.
“I think a lot of it has to do with play-calling,” Nelson said. “Our coaches are putting us into really good positions on fourth down. And the situation is something we work on in fall camp. We’ve seen a lot of different situations and our coaches do a great job of dialing up the right plays at the right times.”
Penn State’s opponents were 0-for-6 on fourth down before Saturday. The Gophers were 8-for-11 in converting fourth downs. Now they are 11-for-14.
Saturday, they had converted two fourth downs that led to touchdowns. They faced fourth-and-1 near midfield with 22 seconds remaining.
They could have called a double-reverse flea-flicker and won. They could have punted.
Fittingly, they had Nelson dive for yet another fourth-down conversion, and suddenly his teammates were sprinting to the Penn State sideline to claim the Governor’s Bell Trophy, and maybe heading toward their first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.