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Just Go ‘Fourth’ It: Miami’s Aggression on Fourth Downs This Season

How have the Canes held up in the risky business of fourth down conversions?

Florida International v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

“They’re going to bring out the markers and measure this. It’s third down and short, but it looks like the Mark Richt is going to leave the offense on the field.”

For all the flack that CMR has endured during the bye week, from naming Malik Rosier the starter once again to his conservative and repetitive play calls, he does have faith in his offense to stay on the field for fourth downs. In seven games, the Canes have attempted to pick up a first on 15 occasions, converting seven of those opportunities for a 46.6% success rate. Considering that Miami attempted to convert a fourth down on nine attempts in 2017 and 13 attempts in 2016, it appears the Canes are comfortable living on the edge.

A big reason you can live with the Canes going for it on the fourth down is because their defense has grown accustomed to defending the short field. It’s the defense that gets impacted more than the offense by a failure to convert, considering they’re put into a situation where their opponent has momentum because of the previous stop to force a turnover on downs. This means that the defense is not only contending with field position, they’re also tasked with squashing the momentum gained from the failure of the offense.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Miami
An opportunistic defense has carried the team through the first half of the 2018 season.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

What’s misleading about the numbers is that they don’t look at the situations they account for. Essentially, the numbers don’t factor some key elements involved in converting a fourth down — weather, personnel, how far it is to make the first down, etc. The fourth down conversion percentage just focuses on the success rate. A 4th and short within the opposing 20-yard line is much different than 4th and 3 on your own 45. It takes confidence in your play calling and a good feel for what the other team likes to do in short yardage situations to extend the first down chains.

The most number of 4th down attempts we could find under a Mark Richt-led team was 22 attempts as coach in Athens, Georgia. That was when UGA had some guy named RB Todd Gurley, complemented by fellow sophomore RB Keith Marshall, sharing carries. The offense was led by senior QB Aaron Murray, who, for all his faults, had the trust of the Richt and then-offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo.

Save for the offensive coordinator, you could draw a couple of parallels between the Bulldogs’ personnel and that of the 2018 Hurricanes. It’s much too early and presumptuous to compare anyone to Gurley, but running backs Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas more than hold their own. Despite the ongoing struggles in the blocking ahead of them, both backs average 5.7 yards-per-carry coming out of the bye week. Malik… well, he’s Malik. The senior can tuck the ball under his arm and trudge forward for some yards, tumbling past defenders. The N’kosi Perry option gives Miami a passer who will extend the plays with his legs if his initial options are covered. Should there be a running lane or opening on the perimeter of the line of scrimmage, look for the sophomore to squeeze his way by for the first down.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami
FB Trayone Gray has become the Hurricanes go-to option in short yardage situations.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Miami has many reasons why they should go for it on fourth down, unfortunately the play calling has become all too predictable. The star of the Hurricanes short-yardage game has been senior fullback Trayone Gray, whose 20 carries this season is just three off of his career-high total. The 6’2”, 240 pound hulk is the battering ram of the backfield, getting his shoulders low to slam into the mass of carnage at the line of scrimmage. Gray as the short-yardage option has been effective, especially when UM lines up in a two-RB formation. However, it has become very predictable at this point of the year, as evidence by the Cavaliers who stuffed the Canes on both of their fourth down attempts.

The fire has definitely been lit under Mark Richt and co-offensive coordinator Thomas Brown. It’s not a problem of deciding to take the chance of going for it on their final opportunity. The issue is they’ve converted just 43% on third downs through seven games, putting UM’s offense in a continual back-and-forth momentum swing. The payoff of attempting to move the chains on fourth down is worth taking the risk of extending an offensive drive for the Hurricanes.

It may also be a condemnation of the team’s lack of faith in the special teams unit, but given the first half review, it’s completely understandable. Miami needs to mix it up a little. Fans have grown weary of meatloaf, so let’s spice it up a bit. Are there still going to be moments where Miami’s offense comes up just short of picking up a first down? Probably. The Hurricanes have the personnel to convert these attempts and a badass defense that can pick up the slack if they come up short. It’s better for the Canes to exhibit faith in their offense by going for it than shying away from the moment. Miami is all-too-familiar with head coaches not capitalizing with the talent at their disposal — it doesn’t have the temperment to go through that once more.

Against a Boston College defense that resembles the Monstars of Space Jam, the offensive brass of Miami needs to continue to trust the personnel they have available. Against an opportunistic Eagles’ defense that has recovered six fumbles and picked off 11 passes to date, the time for sitting on plays jumped out of the plane with no parachute over the course of the bye week. There’s no such thing as cruise control when it comes to watching the Hurricanes. Here’s to the team coming out on top in a game of high risks and high rewards.