Punt or gamble: How ACC coaches think about fourth down

Fans want teams to go for it on fourth, but what do the numbers say?

Oct 28, 2017; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels punter Hunter Lent (91) has his punt blocked by Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Jonathan Garvin (97) in the third quarter. The Hurricanes defeated the Tar Heels 24-19 at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In his regular-season finale, Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson found his team stalled in no-man’s land.

The Demon Deacons faced fourth-and-8 from the Duke 37, and none of Clawson’s options were good.

A 54-yard field goal seemed a bit of a stretch. Going for it risked giving the Blue Devils a short field.

So Clawson went the safe route. He punted. Dom Maggio placed the ball at the 2-yard line, pinning the Blue Devils against their own end zone. It was the third time in the game that Maggio’s punts had put Duke inside its own 10-yard line.

Duke ran a quarterback sneak, a short, safe sideline pass and a quarterback draw, which gained all of three combined yards. The Blue Devils punted, giving Wake possession on the Duke 43. One play later, the Deacs scored a touchdown.

“Field position is good and it’s always nice to give your defense some room back there and try to create some safeties and make the offense for Duke travel a long way,” Maggio said afterward.

The sequence highlights the benefit of one of the most maligned plays in college football — the punt after crossing the 50. It’s not as sexy as going for it, but more often than not, the safe call is the right one.

That’s because the value of pinning a team deep is so much higher than the payoff from the other options.

“Anything that you snap inside the 5-yard line, mathematically, gives you a negative point total,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “That yard line, if you do the math, is assigned a minus .7 — that’s how hard it is.”

A look at every possession in a game involving ACC teams this year shows that Cutcliffe’s numbers hold up. Offenses that started inside their 10-yard line due to a punt scored an average of 1.4 points. However, the team that punted them there scored an average of 2.2 on their next possession, either due to one of the 11 turnovers in the red zone that resulted from those situations, or the seven safeties, or improved position from flipping the field.

In other words, punting a team deep will gave ACC teams a 0.8 point advantage on the ensuing possession.

The impact on the pinned offense is significant, as Duke’s play calling against Wake showed.

“You don’t want to turn the ball over,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re not taking risks with the passing game. Most people either throw it really deep or throw it really quick. Sacks, a hold in the end zone, turnovers, a strip, all of it is so costly.”

Offenses downshift from attack to survival mode when pinned deep.

“If you start a drive (pinned deep), the only goal that I focus on is two first downs. If we can get two first downs, that’s a successful drive, because we can flip the field ourselves.”

In ACC games this year, when the pinned team failed to get a first down, the advantage improved from 0.8 points to 3.1. In other words, pinning a team deep and keeping them there is more advantageous than a successful field goal attempt.

While the offense treads water, the defense smells blood.

“On defense, flip all that I just said around,” Cutcliffe said. “You’ve got a chance to win the game, man. You want to talk intensity.”

It’s also not as hard to pin a team as it might seem. While fans remember the punts from the 40 that roll into the end zone, netting a team about 20 yards of field position, there were just 89 touchbacks on punts in ACC games this year. Compare that to 183 punts downed inside the 10, and teams have a 67 percent success rate at pinning their opponents. Even if the punter fails and gives up a touchback, offenses starting on the 20-yard line after a punt scored just 1.6 points on that drive.

While pinning a team deep can produce more points than a field goal, the prospects for an actual field goal attempt aren’t all that promising.

ACC games saw field goal kickers succeed 75 percent of the time, meaning that a kick from no-man’s land will give a team an average of 2.2 points. However, teams taking possession after a missed field goal scored an average of 2.6 points on that drive, thanks to field position and a likely letdown from the team that missed the kick.

Even taking into account the fact that teams don’t miss that often, a field goal attempt only produces an advantage of about two-thirds of a point for the kicking team. In other words, it’s often better to call the punter’s number in that situation.

When an offense faces the decision Clawson did, however, fans in the stands and at home alike want nothing more than for the coach to go for it.

A successful fourth down attempt can certainly boost an offense. Teams that successfully converted a fourth down on the middle half of the field (between the 25 yard lines) scored an average of 3.5 points on those drives. And going for it in that situation succeeded 150 out of 250 times — a 60 percent success rate.

Giving it up on downs is a risk. Teams that took over on downs in the middle half of the field scored 2.4 points on that drive, meaning that going for it produces about a 1.2 point advantage.

So, what’s the right thing to do? From a sheer numbers perspective, going for it has a slim advantage over punting, but it’s far from the no-brainer that fans and analysts often think. Keeping the offense on the field will net a team about 1.2 points, compared to 0.8 points for punting deep and 0.7 for trotting out the field goal unit.

Of course, you could always run a fake…