4th Down Drama

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Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

The Miami Hurricanes fell to 4-4 overall after failing to convert a 4th down late in the game against Virginia.  You’ve lived this nightmare.  Shockingly, there has been a 4th down late in the game (around 2 minutes or less, this game was slightly over 2 minutes) that would have enabled Miami to win or (come close) to winning a game with a conversion or stop (in the Virginia game, they would have approached a tie game), and on all 4 occasions, they have failed.  These are not long yardage situations, either.  The longest distance Miami has had to convert is 4 yards.  1 possession was defensive, where Virginia Tech needed 1 yard.

But this issue warrants further examination.  Why do these games keep coming down to these situations and why does Miami keep failing?  Success could have lead to an 8-0 record.

And You May Ask Yourself, Well…How Did I Get Here?

In every Miami game, there have been inexcusable errors that have prevented Miami from creating a lead or preventing the situation where they would need to make a play on 4th down late in the game.  Some of these plays are obvious and memorable, some of them are under the radar.

Maryland

This one is a tough one to look at and say that the ‘Canes deserved to be up in this game, given that Maryland moved the ball at will and outgained the ‘Canes by over 100 yards.  But, the ‘Canes managed to stay in the game by holding Maryland to FGs on most of their drives and intercepting a pass in the endzone.  Still, it was 2 huge mistakes that caused the ‘Canes to be in this predicament:

  1. Leading 14-10, on their own 28, with less than a minute left, on 2nd and 17, and with Maryland content to allow Miami just run the clock out and get to half, Mike James fumbled the ball and it was returned for a TD.  Huge momentum swing and 7 crucial points.
  2. On the ‘Canes next to last drive, trailing by 2 points, Lamar Miller ran inside the 5 yard line setting up 1st and goal and a potential TD to go up 5 points (and force Maryland to get a TD).  The play was called back for an illegal formation, Miami settled for a FG, and ended up conceding the FG back, necessitating another drive from Miami, which came up short.

Kansas State

Everyone members the anemic first half offense that exploded in the 2nd half, but is that version entirely accurate?  There are 2 things that actually prevented the ‘Canes from possibly taking a lead into the 2nd half, or at least keeping the score closer:

False starts.  2 critical false starts killed the first 2 drives of the game.

  1. On the opening drive, on 3rd and 1 from the KSU 17, Miami false started.  This put them in 3rd and long, which they failed to convert, settling for a FG.
  2. On the 2nd drive, Miami drove to the KSU 38 and faced 3rd and 5.  Caught in no man’s land, Miami considered this a 2 down situation, and ran on 3rd and 5, gaining a yard and setting up 4th and 4.  As the ‘Canes lined up to go for it, another false start forced the ‘Canes into 4th and 9 and a punt.  This was particularly vexing because the 3rd down play was a set up for 4th down, which the ‘Canes then couldn’t even run.

Not falling on fumbles.  Kansas State fumbled 4 times.  On 2 of those, the ‘Canes had clear shots at the ball.

  1. On 3rd and 7 from their own 45, KSU’s QB Collin Klein fumbled.  The Hurricanes tried to pick it up and run with it and Klein dove back on the ball for a loss to the 35.  KSU ended up punting to the ‘Canes 31.  If the ‘Canes fall on the ball, at least a FG attempt was in order.
  2. On KSU’s winning TD drive, KSU had 2nd and 1 at the Miami 15.  KSU fumbled the handoff and the ball kicked into the Miami defensive line area.  No one fell on it and a KSU offensive linemen dove on it for a 1st down.  Recovering this obviously would have prevented KSU’s winning TD.

Virginia Tech

The culprits here were a failure to capitalize on a drive and horrible end of first half execution defensively.

  1. Miami came out assertively, driving the ball down the field.  After gaining 66 yards on Jacory Harris’ arms and legs, to get a 2nd and 1 at the VT 14, Miami went to their ground game, was stuffed twice, and then failed on a fake FG.  3 points were wasted, at least, and had Miami simply continued to ride Harris’ arm, he likely would have converted.
  2. After Miami scored a TD to cut the lead to 7, they had an opportunity to get off the field on a 3 and out with a chance to score before halftime.  Logan Thomas uncorked a pass that was high and nowhere near the WR.  Ray Ray Armstrong grabbed the WR anyway, resulting in pass interference and an automatic first down.  After VT easily moved the ball to the Miami 3, with 10 seconds left, VT called their last time out.  They then bailed Miami out by throwing a swing pass.  Simply breaking down and making a tackle would have prevented the score.  Instead, David Wilson got into the end zone.

Virginia

3 things greatly contributed to this:

2 long drives that resulted in no points (excluding the 4th down, which we will deal with later, and the last drive with the throw to Clements).

  1. After going 60 yards, Jacory Harris threw an incompletion on 3rd down, where there appeared to be pass interference.  In any event, Miami still had a very makeable 40 yard FG, which was missed.
  2. After driving 51 yards to the Virginia 15, the ball slipped out of Jacory Harris’ hand and was recovered by Virginia.

Mental error penalties to extend Virginia drives.

  1. After getting a stop on 3rd and 7, Olivier Vernon was called for roughing the passer.  The call was questionable, but a few plays later, Perry Jones threw a half-back pass for a TD.
  2. After Miami got a stop early in the 2nd half, a roughing the punter penalty extended the drive.  Virginia didn’t score (due to a missed FG), but was able to run several minutes off the clock and essentially eat up the rest of the 3rd quarter.

Conceding long TDs on 3rd and short.

  1. On 3rd and 4 at the Virginia 47, Miami blitzed.  Virginia called a WR screen and ran 53 yards for the first TD of the game.
  2. On 3rd and 2 from the Virginia 22, Miami blitzed.  Virginia isolated a RB Perry Jones on LB Jimmy Gaines.  Jones beat Gaines and scored a 78 yard TD, which ended up being the difference in the game.

Summary:  Obviously, in any game, there are critical plays that help decide the outcome.  Interceptions are thrown, tackles are missed.  But what stands out from the errors highlighted here is that they were all monumental, fundamental and avoidable.  Certainly by the 8th game, this shouldn’t be happening.

Where Is J.C. Louderback When You Need Him?

But the ‘Canes failed to execute, and ended up in 4th down situations.  As I mentioned earlier, these 4th down situations were not 4th and long and should have been converted, at least some of the time.  What went wrong here?

Maryland

The situation:  Maryland 26, Miami 24.  4th and 4 at the Maryland 49.
The play:  Stephen Morris throws an out route that is intercepted and run back for a TD.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuxeUtaqP9c
What happened:  Streeter ran a sloppy route, the defender jumped it, and the play never had a chance.

Kansas State

The situation:  Kansas State 28, Miami 24.  4th and GL at the Kansas State 1.
The play:  Jacory Harris scrambled trying to score and was tackled inches short.  The play was originally ruled a TD, but overturned.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpEgAAYE_iw
What happened:  The played called for a shovel pass to Lamar Miller.  Unfortunately, the KSU DE did not rush up field and inadvertently blew up the play.  Left with no recourse, Jacory Harris tried to scramble and got dragged down inches short of the GL.

Virginia Tech

The situation:  Miami 35, Virginia Tech 31.  4th and 1 at the Miami 19.
The play:  Logan Thomas runs a read-option and jogs unimpeded into the end zone.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwwWEsk7M5g
What happened:  This was the one running play that Miami had defended well in this game.  Unfortunately, the entire DL got blown up and Spence, the only player with a chance to make a play, got blown up as well.

Virginia

The situation:  Virginia 28, Miami 21.  4th and 2 at the Virginia 15.
The play:  Mike James is stuffed for a 1 yard loss.
What happened:  The entire left side of the OL collapsed, including most notably TE Chase Ford.  The play never had a chance.

Summary:  Why is the team so bad in these situations?  The answer is simple…they are bad at stopping the run and struggle running in these situations.  And this is quantifiable.  In situations where Miami or an opponent have 3rd or 4th down and 3 or less, and call a running play, the difference is shocking.

Miami Opponent
Avg Yards per Play 1.83333333 5.88
Conversion % 50% 80%

Ouch.  It’s no wonder Miami can’t make the critical 4th down stop and struggles to convert.  This is not an issue isolated to late game situations, but prevalent throughout the game.  Interesting side note, Miami has significantly more success when they throw in these situations:

Pass
Avg Yards per Play 7.52941176
Conversion % 70.59%

These numbers are even more exaggerated against Virginia.

Run Pass
Avg Yards per Play 0.25 5
Conversion % 0% 66.67%

Needless to say, Fisch’s play calling on the next to last drive is certainly due for some criticism, and attempting 2 passes on the last 2 plays of that drive would have been a considerably higher percentage play.

A note on clock management

Even after that possession, Miami had a chance to get the ball back with enough time left, had they stopped UVA on a 3 and out, which didn’t happen.  But this was also a fascinating study in clock management, which opens up Golden to some criticism and some praise.

  1. I don’t know whose decision it was to bleed the clock on the next to last drive, but Miami used a whopping 5:02 of the 7:12 left to get only 37 yards.  This is a questionable tactic, given that this requires you to get a TD on this drive, then win in OT.  Down 7, the more advisable strategy would have been to get in and out of the huddle a bit quicker and conserve a more time.  Ideally, Miami would have wanted to score, get a stop, and then kick a winning FG anyway, so this strategy is questionable, with the only justification being a complete lack of confidence in the defense where Miami planned to score with such little time that Virginia would have to just take a knee and get it to OT.  But you don’t have that luxury when down a TD.
  2. After UVA ran for the first down to extend the last drive, Golden burned his 2nd timeout.  This is an incorrect use of a timeout.  After a 1st down, the clock stops and the chains are moved.  At this point, the game and play clocks are restarted, with the play clock at 25 seconds.  After a non first down play, the play clock starts at 40 seconds, allowing an additional 15 seconds to tick off.  Had Golden saved that timeout and used it after the 2nd or 3rd down play on the subsequent set of downs, there would have been 15 more seconds for the last drive.
  3. When Virginia made a holding penalty on 1st down, Golden wisely declined the penalty and did not burn a timeout.  Since the clock was stopped to signal the penalty, the play clock was reset to 25, and the same 15 seconds were saved that should have been in the 2nd item, so Golden smartly did not use timeout.  Had he accepted the penalty, UVA would have been able to run an additional play, with the play clock starting at 40, conceivably using an extra 20 seconds.  All told,  by making poor decisions, Golden could have burned through an additional 15 or 20 seconds, but instead, he smartly declined the penalty, saved the timeout, and saved time.
  4. On the final punt of the game, the play took 13 seconds.  On the previous punt, Golden deployed 2 returners, Benjamin and Dorsett, and the fair catch was easily made.  Miami went for the block, but they could have still done so while leaving an extra returner back to ensure a catch of the ball.  This could have saved 5+ seconds and about 15 yards.

Summary

The ‘Canes are playing hard, staying in games and on the cusp of doing great things.  Unfortunately, the inability to execute against and with the run in short yardage, and several correctable errors are holding the team back. In the future, it might be advisable to look to pass in those short yardage situations if the defenses continue to stack the box.  Miami successfully converted 4 out of 4 on 4th and short against UNC, GT and UVA via the pass before reverting to a run at the end of the UVA game.  Defensively, it’s important to avoid those situations, since there is very little recourse for the other team running effectively.

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