By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Earlier this year, on a rather large stage seeing as it was an important NFL Saturday night game in the middle of January, the New England Patriots stunned the Indianapolis Colts when quarterback Tom Brady, with his team stationed near midfield and facing a third-and-long play, punted.
You read that right. He punted … on third down.
What’s that you say, West Virginia University can’t get its coach Dana Holgorsen to punt on fourth down?
I know. Yes, I know … and so does he and he’s not thrilled about it, either.
Football traditionalists are stunned, shocked and hyperventilating over the way Holgorsen seems to ignore field position over and over to go for it on fourth down. He’s done that 29 times this season in nine games — an average of more than three times a game — and made it half the time, 52 percent, to be exact.
The figure is skewered somewhat by the last game at Oklahoma State where West Virginia went for it seven times in that one game, making it four times.
One, in particular, a fourth-and-long at his own 39, was widely second-guessed, and Holgorsen himself admits that he questions that decision.
“If you look at all seven of them, there is only one of them that I questioned after the game, and that was the one in the fourth quarter that we were backed up to our 35 or 40 or somewhere in there.” He said. “Looking back at it, I kind of questioned that one a little bit, but I think at that point, we were down 14, they had just had an 80-yard score, and we made the decision to go for it.”
As for the rest of the gambles …
“Other than that, the other six, I would do it again,” he said.
Especially one that had an amazing outcome, looking at fourth-and-12 at the Oklahoma State 35, quarterback Geno Smith having to leave the game because he had lost his helmet on the previous play.
Sophomore backup Paul Millard came off the bench and somehow threw a bullet of a pass to Stedman Bailey, not for a first down, for a touchdown.
“I didn’t feel good about the field goal, because of the wind. I didn’t feel good about the punt, because you have a chance at only gaining 15 yards, so we took a chance, and it worked out,” he said.
You win some; you lose some.
But there is a bigger question here, one that is raging through football, and that is whether or not the punt is overused, especially in the game the way it is where you often need 50 points to win a game.
As this year has played out, Holgorsen has been like a man playing poker and looking down on every fourth down and finding a hand of “aces and eights,” the dead man’s hand.
Strategy says punt the ball … but has anyone been watching what happens when WVU punts the ball?
At one point this year the team ranked last in college football in net punting, and even
now, with Tyler Bitancurt having established himself as a solid punter, the Mountaineers rank 97th out of 120 teams in net punting, averaging just 35 yards a punt.
Normally, you would still go ahead and punt in most situations, but then there’s this.
When you punt, you send the worst defense in college football out onto the field. True, they have a longer field to defend if you punt rather than go for it and fail, but yardage doesn’t seem to matter when you give up 478 yards and 44.4 points a game.
Holgorsen denies that enters into his thinking, but isn’t that really just coach speak? Like don’t you have to weigh your chance of getting two, three, five, heck, 15 yards with Geno Smith at quarterback and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey at receiver against holding the opponent if it gets the ball anywhere from the WVU 40 back to the opponent’s 30.
As much as a traditionalist such as yours truly would like to see that punt, the offensive option is really tempting for the reward far outweighs the risk.
“It’s our job offensively to score,” is the way Holgorsen puts it. “It is our job to keep going forward.”
The trouble is through this four-game losing streak, the offense has at times been as inept as the defense. Twice the Mountaineers scored 14 points. Two of the touchdowns weren’t even scored by the offense.
“Then a couple of the goal line ones, we had third-and-short and fourth-and-short, we have to be able to get it. If we are going to be successful offensively, we have to be able to get those,” Holgorsen said.
The truth is that he understands he’s been going for it far too often on fourth down.
“I don’t want to get into a habit of going for it on fourth down five to seven times a game,” he said. “I don’t want to, and if you look back at the games, there have been a couple of times this year that we have done that, but over the course of the 20-some games since I have been here, that hasn’t been the norm and don’t expect it to be.”
What’s happened, he said, is “it is all the situation. The situation has dictated it.”
The situation isn’t only down and distance, but also a terrible defense and unreliable punting.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.