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In Shortened Season, The Stakes Are Higher On Fourth Down

In Shortened Season, The Stakes Are Higher On Fourth Down

With only 16 teams receiving a playoff bid and the season shortened to as few as six games, there's an added focus on fourth down.

Mar 11, 2021 by Kyle Kensing
In Shortened Season, The Stakes Are Higher On Fourth Down

Fourth-down decision-making often comes down to mathematics. The spring 2021 season throws in some new metrics to consider when the down marker turns: fewer postseason bids and a shortened season. 

With a reduction of eight FCS playoff bids, down to 16 from the 24 it has been since 2013, and most teams playing 6-to-8 games rather than the usual 11 or 12, every game outcome has higher stakes. 

But does that mean coaches will take more risks than in a typical season? So far, not so much.

The Trend

“Fourth down isn’t going to change a whole lot,” said UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso. “It doesn’t change my mindset how we’re going to play just because it’s a shortened season.”

The Great Danes attempted and converted one fourth down in their season-opening win at New Hampshire. They went for it 26 times in 14 games in 2019, an average of 1.86 fourth-down attempts per contest. 

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UAlbany’s 2019 fourth-down plays lagged incrementally behind the national average. Every FCS team went for it on fourth down a combined 2,811 times, an average of 1.88 per team per game.  

Comparing this season to the last isn’t quite fair, given the disparities in games played. Stephen F. Austin, which played in the fall, attempted 20 fourth-down conversions in essentially a full season’s worth of games (10). But you can’t glean too much from those programs focused on spring ball. 

New Hampshire, for example, went for it five times against UAlbany. The Wildcats will assuredly not make that the norm. 

Using the very limited and highly divergent numbers available thus far in the 2020-21 campaign, however, teams are going for it less on average than in 2019, not more. The current figure is 1.78 attempts per game. 

The average should climb. It’s currently pulled down by a variety of teams having played just one or two games thus far that, like UAlbany, have attempted only one or no fourth-down conversions.  

Just don’t anticipate those numbers to jump exponentially despite the peculiarities of this season. Early indicators suggest coaches will continue to follow their already-held fourth-down philosophies — although those philosophies have changed in recent years.  

The 2019 average of 1.88 attempts per game is a remarkable increase from 2006, the first year after Div. I-AA was reclassified as the FCS. In that campaign, teams went for it 1.56 times per game. 

Evolving philosophies on fourth downs are perhaps most evident at the top of those nationwide averages. Whereas Alabama A&M’s 31 attempts in 2006 led the nation, it would have ranked just 17th in 2019. 

Eastern Illinois went for it a remarkable 51 times in just 12 2019 games. 

How Do Teams Know When To Go?

In the CAA a season ago, the average actually skewed well below the national mark at 1.62 per game. Three Colonial programs — Delaware, Towson and Richmond — went for it 10 times each, tied for second-fewest among all FCS programs. 

Richmond is already 20 percent of the way to matching its 2019 attempts after going for it twice in the Spiders’ season-opening win over William & Mary. Ditto Delaware, which converted both its attempts against Maine.  

Rather than reflecting a dramatic departure from past strategy, however, Richmond and Delaware — and other CAA programs, too — come down to how situations are presented. 

A school of thought exists on going for fourth-down conversions that specific numbers should dictate every such call: how many yards to go, where on the field the ball is spotted, time remaining in the game. 

New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell cited other metrics, including a placekicker’s field-goal success rate from certain distances on the field. Necessity also factors in; New Hampshire attempted two fourth-down conversions in the final minutes on Friday because three points would not have bridged the four-point gap it faced. 

What’s more, icy winds blew unrelentingly on Wildcat Stadium in New Hampshire’s opener against UAlbany. The environment played as much, if not more of a role in the Wildcats attempting five fourth-down conversions against the Great Danes.  

More than concrete numbers, the individual tone and atmosphere of each individual game decide how UNH attacks fourth down. 

“We do it on what we see, what we think and what we feel,” McDonnell said.  

Defending On Fourth Down

University of North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert said the proliferation of higher-scoring offenses in the last decade-plus contributes to the uptick in overall fourth-down attempts. He cited offenses producing more points as heightening the urgency to capitalize on all possessions. 

While not all teams aggressively go for it on fourth down, all teams need to be prepared for fourth-down scenarios, particularly on defense. Elon offers a case study in the CAA. 

The Phoenix went for it 13 times in 2019, well below the national average. In three games of its spring 2021 season, Elon has defended fourth-down tries 12 times. 

Phoenix coach Tony Trisciani said Elon does “not rep a lot of fourth-down snaps in practice, necessarily,” but that’s because the approach does not deviate much from third down. 

“We treat fourth down similar to third down, really,” Trisciani said. “If it’s a fourth-and-short, you treat that similar to your third-and-short calls. Fourth-and-medium is similar to your third-and-medium and pass type of calls, depending on that team’s tendencies.” 

Davidson, Elon’s season-opening opponent, tends to go for it on fourth down; a lot. The Wildcats went for 45 conversions a season ago, and ran five attempts on Feb. 20. The last two were game-changers for the Phoenix, with Tre’Von Jones snuffing out an option pitch on a fourth-and-3, and Devonte Chandler and Bryce Graves combining to stone-wall a fourth-and-1 run. 


Now, defending fourth downs isn’t ideal, even as attempts become more commonplace.  

As Trisciani put it: “You tend to see more fourth-down attempts when you’re not great on first, second and third down. If teams are getting into the fourth-and-shorts, that’s a problem, and you’re going to see a lot more teams go for it.”

But, if the trend continues to creep upward, defenses must be prepared for it. 

There probably won’t be an exponential increase in those attempts this season due simply to the shortened schedule, but the impact of either converting or stopping one might be the difference in going to the playoffs and not.