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August 29, 2012

SDSU: To punt or not to punt

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Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

There is conventional football and then there is the plan that San Diego State head coach Rocky Long is considering.


Long, in his second season with the Aztecs, is looking at the mathematics involved in not punting the football once his team crosses over midfield, regardless of distance on fourth downs. With just days until his team starts the season on the road at Washington, it seems that the numbers have given Long something to consider.

"We had one of our professors in our business school on campus (Monday) come over here and go over a system we are thinking about using," Long said. "We'll have a chart come game time that will determine what we do in different situations."

The unorthodox plan is following in the path of Little Rock (Ark.) Pulaski Academy and its head coach Kevin Kelley. Kelley looked at the numbers several games into the 2007 football season and has gone all-in, choosing not to punt regardless of field position and rarely kick the ball deep on kickoffs.

Kelley has called punting an offensive failure and used the plan to win two state titles, in 2008 and 2011, in addition to posting a 104-19 record in nine years at the school. During the two state championship-winning seasons, Pulaski Academy has punted just once and the team has kicked away on kickoffs five times. Those six instances, according to Kelley, were to avoid running up the score.

Long has never given serious consideration to this type of game plan in more than 40 years of coaching, but he was willing to give it a stage at a recent scrimmage where his team converted on one of five attempts.

Kelley said that making the choice to go for it comes with immediate detractors.

"You can just tell people in the stands are thinking, 'You're and idiot,' " he told Rivals.com.

The plan was met with some skepticism from coaches around the country.

Michigan State special teams coach Mike Tressell said that even with the mathematical support, he'll take the more conservative approach.

"If you do the flat mathematics of it and work with those stats to get them to show the things you want to show, you might find a way to say that that's better (never punting, always going for two and attempting onside kicks)," he said. "We are a little more conservative than that, but not so conservative."

Tressell is the nephew of former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressell, who famously phrased that the punt is the most important play in football. He is also a former math major himself that has used his share of calculated trick plays to win games.

In 2010, Michigan State beat Notre Dame using a fake field goal pass called "Little Giants" in overtime. A few weeks later, the Spartans remained unbeaten with a comeback win at Northwestern, fueled by "Mouse Trap" - a fake punt pass from punter Aaron Bates to wide gunner Bennie Fowler.

Last year, Tressell used field goal holder Brad Sonntag to score a two-point conversion on a 3-yard run in the Big Ten championship game. He also picked up five yards on a fake field goal on fourth-and-2 in a victory at Iowa.

"What we would like to be able to do is always have the fakes, the tricks, the changeups in our arsenal, but not use them all the time," Tressell said. "We want to be good at the fundamentals - be a great field goal kicking team, be a great kickoff team, but use those fakes enough and those alternative kicks enough that you had better be on your toes. That's the way we approach it.

"I wasn't aware that San Diego State was doing that. I do see that more often than you would think at the high school level."

At the high school level, the numbers bear out that keeping the offense on the field is a statistical savvy decision.


Kelley said that several studies, including "Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Pro Football," by California economics professor David Romer, as well as ZEUS, a computer program developed to model and predict football outcomes by Chuck Bower, a doctor in astrophysics, and Frank Frigo, a game theory expert, back his decisions.

For Pulaski, a first down can be achieved 50 percent of the time when facing a fourth down situation inside the team's own 10-yard line. For the times the offense does not gain a first down, the statistical data on the college level shows the opposition will score a touchdown 90 percent of the time. In the same instance, the decision to punt, with an average 35-yard net placing the opposition with the ball on 38-yard line, resulted in a touchdown 77 percent of the time.


The 13-percent difference proved to be worth it for Kelley.

Long, however, is still weighing his own numbers and values.

"We put in all of our statistics over the last four years on offense and defense," he said. "We figured out our success rate by punting it into a formula. The formula came out telling us what, by percentages, is the best thing to do in different field positions.

"We haven't decided if we are going to go by the chart yet, but we have a chart in our hand right now."

- Rivals.com West Coast recruiting analyst Rob Cassidy contributed to this report.



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