One of the key storylines from Saturday’s 2012 Washington football opener — besides the Huskies’ inability to move the football as expected and open up a lead — was the decision making of San Diego State coach Rocky Long, who bucked conventional wisdom several times late in the game with the Aztecs still in position to possibly pull the upset.
Before the season, Long mused about following the lead of prep coach Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy, who famously eschews punts and field goals in favor of always going for it on fourth down. Long’s notion was to go for it any time after San Diego State passed midfield. And that’s pretty much what happened. Aztecs punter Joel Alesi punted twice, from his own 26 and his own 22. Long also called a pooch punt by quarterback Ryan Katz at the Washington 37, the only exception to the rule. Other than kickoffs, San Diego State kicker Wes Feer never took the field as the Aztecs went for every other fourth down and for two-point conversions after both touchdowns.
Ultimately, two plays stood out as controversial. After scoring to get within 21-12, San Diego State went for two rather than attempting an extra point that could have cut to score to a one-possession difference. Late in the fourth quarter, after driving inside the Husky 10 yard line, the Aztecs went for fourth and six rather taking a chip-shot field goal that would have allowed them to win with a touchdown. To me, the first decision was much more problematic than the second, which was criticized largely on the notion of “extending the game.” San Diego State got the ball back with 40 seconds remaining at its own 8, so the chances of driving for any kind of score there were miniscule no matter what. If the Aztecs had started their final full drive down 21-13, however, they would have had a legitimate chance of forcing overtime.
However, I’m less interested in the specific decisions and more interested in the big-picture approach. What makes Kelley’s system famous, besides the success his team has enjoyed (winning three state titles) is that he never punts or kicks field goals. Kelley’s approach isn’t so much a strategy as it is a mindset.
Now, I wouldn’t say that mindset is the right one, even though the numbers support teams going for it on fourth down far more than they actually do. I’m more of a situational pragmatist myself. That said, there are a few advantages to viewing fourth downs as an all or nothing proposition. Kelley’s teams have more time to practice offense and defense because they’re not spending time on kicking situations. The team also knows it will always have four downs instead of three to convert, which changes its approach offensively. Lastly, committing to going for it all the time is a mechanism to keep the coach from getting conservative and making net-negative decisions to avoid criticism. Obviously, Rocky Long has adapted the last of these points, as he did not back down from his strategy after the game.
I do think it’s important to evaluate San Diego State’s approach holistically, rather than picking and choosing decisions to support a given point. Nobody seemed to mention that the only reason the Aztecs were in the game in the fourth quarter was the touchdown they scored early in the period after getting 28 yards on fourth and 10 from the Husky 32. Because the spot was in between — too close for a punt, but requiring a long field goal — other teams might have gone for it in that situation. But San Diego State had no hesitation, and the resulting play was the team’s longest of the day, setting up a score on fourth and goal. That touchdown can’t simply be swept aside in the criticism of what came later. Long’s aggressive decision making requires taking the bad with the good.