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Pleading The Fourth: Oregon's Extra Down

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Oregon Duck head coach Mark Helfrich will need to decide how he'll handle fourth downs this season. Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images.
Oregon Duck head coach Mark Helfrich will need to decide how he'll handle fourth downs this season. Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images.

While most big-time college football programs play the game with three downs to make 10 yards, Oregon's Chip Kelly offered a revolutionary idea — why not use your fourth down, too?

Kelly developed a reputation as a riverboat gambler by being unafraid to go for it on fourth down from just about anywhere in the stadium under any circumstance. It was a testament to his belief in an offense that was so hard to stop and the confidence with which he coached the Ducks. Now, one of the many questions that face new coach Mark Helfrich is "will he roll the dice the way Chip did on fourth downs?"

We'll find out once the season begins, but what's important to note about Kelly's willingness to face those fourth downs is that it played into the larger picture he was creating — an offense that grinds opponents down physically and mentally. Think about it, if Helfrich really wants to tire out a defense, making it stay on the field for an extra down or an extra snap during a few series is a good way to add a little whip cream to the stamina-sapping pi, especially if Oregon converts.

If a defense believes it will get off the field in three plays, then has to stay for a fourth play and its opponent gets the first down, that's an emotional hit. Against a normal team playing the way we all expect them to play in the first or second quarter, the defense believes it will get off the field if it  holds for three plays. After all, it's not the last minutes of a tight game, there's no reason to expect a team to go for it on fourth down. That's just not what coaches do.

Oregon does and it reaps big rewards. It hurts teams in terms of extra defensive snaps and mental fatigue.

Oregon ran 1,058 plays a year ago and scored 89 touchdowns. They didn't run the most plays, but no other team with more than 1,000 plays were close to them in touchdowns scored.

Here are some other offenses that ran at least 1,000 plays, only one of which scored at least 80 touchdowns:

Louisiana Tech 1,054 plays, 84 TDs
Baylor, 1,072 plays, 76 TDs
Texas A&M, 1,025 plays, 78 TDs
Oklahoma State, 1,014 plays, 73 TDs
Clemson, 1,062 plays, 68 TDs
Tulsa, 1,160 plays, 65 TDs
Marshall, 1,087 plays, 65 TDs
Arizona, 1,082 plays, 65 TDs
Nevada, 1,080 plays, 66 TDs

The numbers suggest something Oregon did offensively provided it more opportunities to score touchdowns. Could it be the repeated ploy of making defenses play more downs than normal opponents do? For my money, that's exactly what gives Oregon the opportunity to score quickly and often as games move along.

It is by this tactic that the Ducks seem to reap huge benefits from making teams play them for four plays in a series. Kelly's genius was knowing that his offense is virtually impossible to stop for decent gains as a rule. So, why not use that advantage to make the opponent play defense longer and deliver a little psychological slap while we're at it?

What's interesting about the fourth-down option is that Oregon didn't do it more than anyone else, nor did they have a better conversion percentage. However, I think it safe to say that no other team in the nation uses its fourth down attempts within the confines of the offense as early or in "non-desperation" moments as Oregon. For the Ducks, the fourth-down try is not only a normal part of their thinking, it's a huge part of their physical and mental game against an opponent.

A year ago, Oregon ranked 19th in the nation in fourth down conversions, making 64.5 percent of their attempts. Oregon didn't even have the highest number of fourth down attempts, recording 31 (with 20 makes), far below the top dogs Air Force (43), Army (41) and Georgia Tech (37).  Interesting to note that those three teams are all option-first teams that rely on running the ball. They are all below Oregon in percentage of fourth-down conversions, however, which points to the biggest difference between the Ducks and these three teams — they are predictable while Oregon most certainly is not.

And therein lies the difference between Oregon's mindset on fourth down and virtually the rest of the the country. They go for it because they feel they have to. Oregon goes for it because they like to. It's a means to an end for them and if history has shown us anything, it's that converting fourth downs and keeping the defense on the field usually leads to points  for Oregon.

While Chip Kelly ran the Oregon program, he used fourth down as a weapon that often reaped benefits of points and defensive fatigue. Is Helfrich that kind of gambler or will he play fourth down closer to the vest? Yet another question Oregon's new coach will answer in time.