A great many people were surprised by Dave Doeren’s decision to go for it on fourth and 1 in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss at Duke, deep in N.C. State’s own territory. At least one was not.
“My wife and I talked after the game and she said, ‘I knew you were going to go for it,’ ” the N.C. State coach said Monday. “I just said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s who I am.’ I have to be who I am. I told (athletic director) Debbie (Yow), she hired an aggressive coach, and I have to coach aggressive.”
There’s certainly no arguing with that statement. In the ACC, only Virginia has attempted more fourth-down conversions than N.C. State this season, and the Wolfpack ranks tied for 24th nationally with 19 attempts. At 47.4 percent, N.C. State’s conversion rate is tied for 71st nationally.
It’s not the volume or the rate of success that has raised eyebrows, though. It’s the timing.
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The fourth-down try at Duke was on the N.C. State 26-yard line, and when Shadrach Thornton was unable to pick up the first down, Duke ended up kicking a field goal for an early 10-0 lead, points that loomed large when N.C. State had the ball with 3 1/2 minutes to play down by four.
The failed fake punt against North Carolina was on the N.C. State 29-yard line, although field position was just the beginning of the questions that play raised, from the choice of ball carrier (linebacker Robert Caldwell, with 8 yards needed for the first down) to the choice of play (North Carolina’s coaching staff said they were prepared for that particular fake based on film from Doeren’s time at Northern Illinois).
By contrast, the fake field goal attempt against Syracuse, from the Orange’s 31-yard line on fourth and 4, was relatively low-risk, high-return at that point, especially after kicker Nicklas Sade already had missed from 51 earlier in the game.
“At Northern Illinois, I led the conference in fourth-down attempts two years in a row,” Doeren said. “That’s just who I am. I can’t walk in here to our guys and say, ‘We’re going to win by running the football, we’re going to be tough,’ and it’s fourth and 6 inches and I back down. Those guys want to go for it. They want to get it, obviously. And when it doesn’t work, everyone looks at me.”
The emerging discipline of football analytics has shown that going for it on fourth down is a better play than punting (or sometimes even kicking a field goal) far more often than football orthodoxy would suggest, but field position, timing and game situation do factor into the equation.
In N.C. State’s particular case, with injuries throughout the roster and with serious issues at quarterback, it would be fair to wonder if Doeren was willing to gamble more than he might otherwise in search of that first ACC win. Not the case, he said. By the same token, some coaches might play it safer in those situations, unwilling to do anything that might decrease an already slim chance of victory. Not the case, he said.
“I’m going to be aggressive. I want to build a program that is aggressive,” Doeren said. “I can’t say, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to be tough,’ and then we don’t go for it on fourth down or we don’t take chances. I don’t believe that. Whatever you say you have to back up with your actions.”
Doeren has no regrets and offers no apologies. Some of his fourth-down decisions may be debatable, but his willingness to keep making them is not.