Against the Arkansas Razorbacks, Zach Arnett decided that his Mississippi State football team should play it safe rather than put Arkansas in a tough situation.
On Saturday, the Mississippi State football team (on multiple different occasions) chose to punt rather than to go on fourth down in very manageable and advantageous situations. And the Bulldogs were wrong in the instances they decided to play it safe rather than to be aggressive and try to sustain a drive.
When he was asked about it, Arnett defended his thought process. Why? Well, he apparently made that choice based off of how his defense was playing.
First of all, his defense was playing great. He should have trusted his defense should something not work out.
Second of all, that’s not coaching to win a game.
That’s not a strategy that can help the Bulldogs punch above their weight. Instead, that’s just hoping the other team makes more mistakes than your team will.
Applying NYT 4th Down Bot’s ideas to Mississippi State football’s 4th down struggles vs. Arkansas
When examining scenarios in which the Bulldogs should go for it on fourth down, it’s important to consider what analytics show. And no, analytics (like the forward pass and the notion of being innovative on offense) isn’t a form of dark magic. Mississippi State is allowed to go out and be aggressive. And when you look what the numbers say, the Bulldogs should go for it in manageable situations.
AND MSU WAS IN MANAGEABLE FOURTH DOWN SITUATIONS AGAINST ARKANSAS.
The first instance of this?
Go for it on 4th-and-1 from your opponent’s 49 yard line
Miss. State was driving the ball steadily early on in the game and was caught in a 4th-and-1 situation from the Arkansas 49 yard line.
With Mike Wright driving the offense and the Bulldogs’ schemes being run-centric, it would seem logical to be very mildly aggressive and go for it on 4th-and-1 with a QB who runs the ball! That same quarterback averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
But the Bulldogs didn’t do that. What do the number say? State shouldn’t have punted. The Bulldogs should have gone for it. Trust your offensive line. Trust your quarterback. Trust your running back. Trust your offensive coordinator.
And in all actuality, trust your defense! If things happen to go slightly wrong on offense and there’s a turnover on downs, Arkansas gets decent field position, but your defense has proven capable of forcing the Razorbacks to punt!
Try to sustain a drive, wear down the opposing defense, keep your defense fresh, and maybe put some points on the board in the process.
Maybe go for it on 4th-and-4 from your opponent’s 41 yard line
At the start of the third quarter, Arkansas started with the ball, but the Razorbacks are even more dysfunctional than the Bulldogs. And thankfully, after a handful of plays, Arkansas fumbled the ball away and gave MSU a possession starting at the Razorbacks’ 47 yard line.
After that, Marks ran the ball for a yard (is he even fully healthy and should he be active?), Wright missed on a pass, and then Wright ran for five yards.
That sets up the Bulldogs with a 4th down and four yards to go at the Arkansas 41 yard line. And what did MSU do with advantageous field position and the chance to really put this game away early?
Nope. Arnett believes the Bulldogs should punt. And so, they punted. You needed four yards and have a quarterback who was averaging 5.5 yards per carry and you still decided to punt.
Now, I’ll acknowledge that this is a situation in which most NFL coaches would also punt. This is also a tougher ask given how MSU’s lethargic offense looked and so I am willing to listen to pro-punt arguments here.
But again, this would’ve been a great opportunity for the Bulldogs to wear down Arkansas (and maybe even score early coming out of half time).
DO NOT EVER HESITATE TO GO FOR IT ON 4TH-AND-1 FROM YOUR OPPONENTS’ 11 YARD LINE
That last situation? I’m willing to excuse. I can hear out arguments for punting in that specific situation. I disagree, but it’s not egregious.
But this one?
This really makes it seem like Arnett absolutely does not trust his offense and is not willing to ever trust his offense. Rather than to allow Kevin Barbay the freedom to operate a successful offense, Arnett would rather limit what his offense can do and then instead turn to a young kicker who was dinged up against Western Michigan.
And rather than give the Bulldogs a sizable lead, he tried to settle for what would have still been a one-score lead. The Bulldogs were up 7-3 at this point. You go for it on 4th-and-1, you extend the drive, drain the clock, and maybe get a chance to go up 14-3.
But no. Arnett tried a field goal.
To make things even more frustrating, MSU missed the field goal. That’s a field goal you should probably make every time, but it’s also a fourth down situation you should also convert just about every time.
Arnett really needs to be aggressive and allow Barbay a chance to sustain drives
At the end of the day, it really feels like Arnett is not trusting either his defense (to be able to hold up if it were ever in a less-than-ideal sort of circumstance) or his offense (to be able to convert on fourth downs).
At the end of the day, it boils down to putting the Bulldogs in the best position to win. Arnett is trying to do that and he’s trying to do what he feels is right for the Mississippi State football program.
But it would behoove him to consider that being aggressive on fourth down would potentially enable the Bulldogs to more easily get a win. It would also behoove Arnett to consider that Barbay’s offense should be given a chance to keep drives alive, gain momentum, build confidence, and (hopefully) build an insurmountable lead over opponents.
And all of that could be carefully done at a relatively minimal risk.
It just involves going for it on 4th down at key times.
If the Bulldogs could sustain a drive and were to take a few gambles here or there, his offense would enable his defense to have more chance to rest.
And that would help him protect a lead.