The NFL coach in this state made it cool to go for it on fourth down last season.
Ron Rivera’s gambles on fourth down helped push the Carolina Panthers into the playoffs and he even got himself a fancy nickname, “Riverboat Ron.”
No ACC coach went for it more on fourth down last season than N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. “Double-down Dave” did not have quite as much to show for his willingness to take a risk. N.C. State finished the 2013 season with 31 fourth-down attempts in 12 games and three wins.
Conversely, Florida State won 14 games and the national title last season and coach Jimbo Fisher had to roll the dice on fourth down a grand total of four times, including once on a punt fake against N.C. State with a 35-point lead.
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That’s not to tie success or failure to the number of fourth-down attempts, just to point out the different ends of the spectrum. (See the full chart below for ACC teams in 2013).
Clemson, which won 11 games last season, had the second-most attempts with 26. Doeren’s last Northern Illinois team in 2012 went for it 27 times (and converted 20) during its 12-2 campaign in 2012.
The problem for Doeren is when the Wolfpack went for it in the opener this past Saturday, on 4th-and-1 from Georgia Southern’s 9-yard line, everyone in the stadium knew the play.
Running back Shadrach Thornton lined up in the shotgun as the quarterback and tried to run for the first down. He was stopped for no gain.
It’s a new-fangled quarterback sneak for the spread age, which Florida made popular with Tim Tebow.
Six times last season, Doeren dialed up a similar play on fourth down. It worked the first two times the Wolfpack ran it (against Richmond and Central Michigan) but the other, better teams on the schedule were hip to the game plan and stopped three of the next four times. So was, it seemed anyway, Georgia Southern.
N.C. State has a big quarterback – Jacoby Brissett is listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 231 pounds – but Doeren said the Eagles were prepared to stop a traditional QB sneak.
“We called the right play,” Doeren said Thursday when asked about it. “We had everything blocked – (left guard) Joe Thuney comes around and knocks their free safety’s helmet off in the end zone – I mean, it’s a walk-in touchdown.
“When you call a play, it has to be executed.”
Doeren said the same play (out of what N.C. State calls the “wolf” formation) had worked on third down four times in the second half and he felt confident using it on fourth down.
Doeren went for it in a variety of ways last season with 19 passing plays, a fake field goal (forgettably unsuccessful against Syracuse) and fake punt (memorably unsuccessful against North Carolina).
Throw out the two botched snaps – one on a field goal against Boston College and one on a punt against Maryland – and N.C. State’s conversion rate was a healthy 53.8 percent on fourth down last season.
Converting at a high rate on fourth down is not a guarantee for success, either. Wake Forest converted an incredible 88.3 percent last season (10 of 12) but finished 4-8.
The real key to success for N.C. State last Saturday, and the down to pay the most attention to against Old Dominion, is first down. The Wolfpack averaged 9 yards per play on first down in the second half, compared with 3.6 in the first half.
When you’re consistently in second and short, it’s easy to open up the playbook and keep the other team, and everyone else in the stadium, guessing.