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Interactive Graphic: Revisiting #NeverKick and being aggressive on 4th down

Mike Leach loves to take risks. He had turned WSU into one of the most aggressive teams on 4th down in the country, but 2017 was a different story.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In Mike Leach’s quiet moments this off season as his mind wanders back toward football in reflection of the 2017 season, I like to think that he’s most perturbed not by the Apple Cup or a Friday night in Berkeley, but by being unseated as the three-time Pac-12 champion of a made up stat I wrote about last season called #NeverKick %.

#NeverKick % is simply on what percentage of fourth downs does a team go for it vs kicking a field goal or punting? After three consecutive seasons ranked in the top five nationally, the guy who is known for his off-the-field quirks bleeding into his play calling via copious amounts of passing and 4th down attempts got downright Nick Saban-esque in how conservatively he approached 4th downs in 2017.

The Washington State Cougars tumbled to 79th nationally — right next to BAMA — and 8th in the Pac-12, going for it on 4th down just 17% of the time in 2017 vs 33% of the time in 2016. Having a 2nd team all Pac-12 kicker in Erik Powell probably had a lot to do with the drop, but let’s not let facts get in the way of hating kicking and punting.

Below is the chart that ranks every team nationally in #NeverKick%. If you hover over a logo you’ll get a pop-up covering how many 4th down’s each team faced, total punts, field goal attempts and 4th down conversions. Type any team into the “Highlight Team” box to see how they’ve trended since 2009.

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While Powell had a fantastic season that saw the Cougs attempt nine more field goals in 2017 than they did in 2016, I don’t think all the blame can be put on the big lefty. After three consecutive seasons of total punt attempts in the high 40s, the Cougs saw their total punts in 2017 jump up to 63, good for about an extra punt a game. Red zone trips also fell off, as the Cougs got inside the 20 about 5.5 times a game in 2016 and only 4.15 times a game in 2017.

Digging into the numbers more, the huge drop actually isn’t so dire. It basically equates to the Cougs going for it on 4th down one less time a game last year than they had typically done in 2016. While more fun to rank high in anything, with a good field goal kicker and a great defense, it makes sense that Leach chose to get a little more conservative. However, the concerning piece of going conservative in 2017 is that the Cougs went from 67 touchdowns and 38 points per game in 2016 to 48 touchdowns and 30 points per game in 2017 (which is on par with where they were at in 2015). I don’t think all the blame can be put on not going for it on 4th down; I think one of the main culprits for the drop off in scoring production in 2017 was going away from the running game in the red zone, but that’s a different post for a different day.

One last visualization to leave you with is looking at the raw percentages of how often teams went for it on 4th down. I think with a defense going through changes we could see Leach put his foot on the gas again on 4th downs, but he’ll have to contend with Chip Kelly to retain the #NeverKick crown and it’ll be a wild ride for the Bruins to go from Jim Mora to Kelly. Hopefully the reintroduction of Chip to the Pac-12 pushes Leach to innovate and get back to his aggressive ways on 4th down.

If you want to open the chart in a new tab and come back to the story, click here