By Bennett Conlin
JMU is the most conservative fourth-down offense in all of college football. I’m not just saying this dramatically as someone continually perplexed by JMU’s fear of fourth-and-short — the stats back it up.
That’s right, there’s statistical evidence to illustrate what JMU fans witness every week when the Dukes elect to punt in situations that feel like they’re begging the offense to stay on the field.
JMU leads the country in fewest attempts on fourth down with just two. If you include FBS teams, JMU still goes for it on fourth down fewer than any team in the country. Add in Division II schools. JMU is still the most conservative fourth-down team. Toss in Division III schools just for the fun of it. JMU still sits as the most conservative fourth-down team in all of college football.
Of the 667 teams listed on the NCAA’s website for fourth-down statistics, JMU goes for it on fourth down the least.
Let’s make something very clear: Leading the country in fourth-down conversion attempts is not necessarily a good thing. It may mean a program’s special teams unit is weak or that a team trails by so much that it’s forced to go for it on fourth down just to have a chance. Villanova and New Hampshire lead the CAA with 17 attempts on fourth down. Those teams are a combined 5-11 with just one conference win. North Dakota State, the clear No. 1 team in the country, is 3-3 on fourth down this season and nobody questions the Bison’s ability to win games. On the flipside, I’m not so sure going for it fewer times than any other team in the country is good either, especially when you have two losses by a combined 14 points.
Against North Carolina State, the Dukes elected to kick a pair of 19-yard field goals in a 24-13 loss. If the Dukes elect to go for those fourth downs instead of kicking field goals, there’s a chance they win that game. On the other hand, if the Dukes didn’t convert on fourth-and-goal, there’s a chance they wouldn’t have come as close as they did to pulling off the upset. After all, they were a blown coverage on third-and-long away from getting the ball back in the fourth quarter trailing 17-13 with a chance to go win the game.
When JMU fell 27-24 at home to Elon, the Dukes actually attempted a fourth-down conversion. In the first quarter, DiNucci took a seven-yard sack on fourth-and-2 from the Elon 28 with the score tied at 0. The drive obviously didn’t result in points, but neither did Elon’s subsequent drive when it missed a 44-yard field goal attempt. I’m not saying the Dukes need to go for it every time they get anything under fourth-and-5 or that it will always work when they do go for it, but I think JMU can benefit from a more aggressive offense.
If you look at the top-5 scoring offenses in the FCS, they all show signs of aggressiveness on fourth down. Princeton, which leads the country with 50.7 points per game, is 15-17 on fourth down. Kennesaw State, which ranks second in the country with 46.9 points per game, is 14-20 on fourth-down conversions.
Here’s a look at the top-five scoring offenses with their points per game total followed by their fourth-down conversion stats.
Princeton: 50.7, 15-17
Kennesaw State: 46.9, 14-20
Davidson: 44.6, 16-28
UC Davis: 43.3, 12-20
Jacksonville State: 43.1, 4-7
None of these teams possess quite the same defense or special teams as JMU, but Princeton, Kennesaw State and Jacksonville State all rank in the top 25 in scoring defense. Those three programs also rank in the top 10 nationally in total yards allowed per game, too. You don’t need a porous defense to be aggressive. In fact, wouldn’t a good defense make you more willing to go for it? In the case of Princeton, Kennesaw State and Jacksonville State, yes.
JMU’s defense ranks fifth nationally in yards allowed per game, just behind Jacksonville State and Kennesaw State. The Dukes only allow 4.27 yards per play. Does the defense really need the added advantage of 20-30 yards of field position to stop a team? Does that benefit outweigh the potential reward of turning a punt or field goal into a touchdown? I don’t think so. Of course, if the Dukes trail 10-7 in the fourth quarter and face a fourth-and-5 from the opponent’s 20, it makes sense to tie the game. But if it’s still the first half and the Dukes face a fourth-and-short, they need to play aggressively. You don’t win national championships and CAA titles by kicking field goals.
Shifting back to the top-5 scoring offenses and their success on fourth down, they all excel on third downs. Davidson ranks first in third-down conversion percentage, Kennesaw State comes in at No. 2, Princeton sits at No. 4, Jacksonville State holds the No. 5 spot. UC Davis surprisingly ranks 51st nationally, but it’s still in the top half of the country. JMU ranks 10th in third-down conversions and leads the CAA by moving the chains on 46.7 percent of third downs. JMU holds the pieces and shows the third-down success to make me think the Dukes could be one of the most aggressive AND successful fourth-down teams in the country.
For a team that averages just 16.67 points per game against teams with winning records, it’s time to start rolling the dice. If JMU continues to lead the country in risk aversion, the Dukes’ season won’t end with purple and gold confetti showering Toyota Stadium.