Fourth-and-go: TU's success on fourth-down plays has been a defining characteristic this season
BY BILL HAISTEN World Sports Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
11/14/12 at 3:13 AM
IN 13 games last season, the University of Tulsa offense was 6-of-14 on fourth-down conversions.
Through 10 games this season, the Golden Hurricane is 14-of-21.
Entering Saturday's 11 a.m. Conference USA showdown matching East Division-leading UCF and West-leading Tulsa at H.A. Chapman Stadium, the Hurricane has been uncommonly good on fourth-down execution. The Knights' defense has been comparably successful at stopping opponents on fourth down.
"There's a big spike if you make it on fourth down," Hurricane offensive line coach Denver Johnson said. "In certain circumstances, it's a big bummer if you don't."
The combination of a dependable offensive line and 260-pound senior tailback Alex Singleton gives TU coach Bill Blankenship the confidence to leave his offense on the field when other coaches might be inclined to punt or settle for a lengthy field goal attempt.
"It's probably more an instinctive feel based on your history," Blankenship said. "You try not to make mistakes you've made in the past, but at the same time you have opportunities to (perpetuate a momentum swing).
"That's part of being a head coach. The experience of having made some of those decisions has helped me."
As TU has surged to records of 8-2 overall and 6-0 in C-USA, the most overlooked component of the team's success has been its offensive line. Right tackle Brian DeShane, right guard Stetson Burnett, center Trent Dupy, left guard Jake Alexander, left tackle Jared Grigg and frequently used utility guard Gabe Moyer have given up only seven sacks while creating lanes for the league's best run game - 245 yards per game, 5.2 per attempt and 33 rushing TDs. UCF has 24 rushing touchdowns. No other team has more than 21.
"We've got some guys up front who've been moving people around all year," Hurricane wide receiver Jordan James said. "They've been remarkable for us up front."
In victories over Fresno State, Marshall, UTEP and Houston, Tulsa was a combined 9-of-10 on fourth-down conversions. Five conversions ultimately led to scores. On three of the fourth-down plays, there were scores.
For the season, Tulane, Houston and SMU are a combined 12-of-50 on fourth-down gambles.
"Bill is really good about having a feel for the pulse of a game," Johnson said. "I think we've gone for it at the right times, and I think our guys are aggressive. When we find ourselves in a third-and-short, our guys don't assume that we're going to punt. Our attitude is that they want to (stay on the field for a fourth-down snap).
"Defenses always talk about trying to get a three-and-out. They don't talk about a four-and-out. If they stop you on third down, their mind-set is that they've done their job. All of a sudden, they have to defend a fourth down. When we as an offense execute on fourth down, it can be demoralizing for a defense."
Two of the Hurricane's fourth-down plays have been particularly memorable.
Against Fresno State, TU trailed 20-7 and desperately needed something positive. On fourth-and-13 from the Bulldog 31-yard line, Blankenship had two options - to have freshman Daniel Schwarz attempt a 48-yard field goal or to have quarterback Cody Green launch a pass. Blankenship opted for the latter, and Green responded with one of his better throws of the season - a touchdown strike to a well-defended Keyarris Garrett at the back of the end zone.
"To me, that one wasn't a hard decision. It's what we needed to do," Blankenship said. "We were already down (two) scores. It was going to be a long field goal with a freshman kicker. They're always good when they work."
During the first quarter at Marshall, on fourth-and-1 from the Thundering Herd 48, Green handed the football to Singleton. The left side of the TU line opened a huge space for Singleton, who raced 48 yards untouched for a TD and a 10-3 Tulsa lead.
"That was a great one, and we bounced right through there," Johnson recalled. "It's good to see the big fellow (Singleton) running down the field, and it's good to see those offensive linemen running down the field behind him."
Said Blankenship: "You're just wanting to make sure to get a first down, and then it turns into a big one. That was a really big play for us."
Singleton always has been TU's go-to guy in short-yardage situations, but the 2012 season has been by far his best in a complete sense. Entering the UCF contest, he has rushed for 572 yards (4.3 per carry) and scored a TU single-season record total of 18 rushing touchdowns. With two more TDs, Singleton ties Tarrion Adams as the Hurricane's career leader in overall touchdowns. A running back, Adams scored 39 TDs (32 rushing, seven receiving) in 2005-08.
"I think Alex is running at a higher level, and that goes with what we have on the offensive line," Blankenship said. "Compared to a year ago (Blankenship's first season as the head coach and play-caller), I have a better idea of what we're good at. When it's fourth down, I think I have a pretty good measure on our threshold of risk."
Blankenship can be bold, Johnson said, "but he's not reckless. Bill is intelligently aggressive. He's not just rolling the dice and hoping. When you're trying to decide whether to try it on fourth down, it's always a calculated decision."
Kansas State leads the country in fourth down conversion percentage, but has only gone for it twice this season.
Army has the most fourth-down attempts in Division I, converting 21 times.
Air Force has converted the most fourth downs this season in Division I in 36 attempts.
TU's national rank in fourth-down conversion percentage. TU's 66.7% success rate equals OU and Alabama.
Number of C-USA teams in the top 18 in fourth-down conversion percentage.
When risk becomes reward
A review of some of the University of Tulsa's more meaningful fourth-down conversions this season
Hurricane vs. Fresno State
Sept. 22, H.A. Chapman Stadium
With TU trailing 20-7 in the second period, Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-13 play from the Fresno State 31. TU quarterback Cody Green found Keyarris Garrett with a pass at the back line of the south end zone. The touchdown pulled TU to within 20-14.
Minutes later, on fourth-and-1 from the TU 45, Hurricane tailback Trey Watts sustained the possession by surging for 2 yards. The drive ended with a Daniel Schwarz field goal, and TU trailed 20-17 at halftime.
The Hurricane wound up with a 27-26 victory.
Hurricane at Marshall
Oct. 6, Huntington, W. Va.
On fourth-down conversions, TU was 3-of-3 against the Thundering Herd.
On a first-quarter, fourth-and-1 play from the Marshall 48, Tulsa tailback Alex Singleton blasted through an opening on the left side and raced 48 yards - untouched - for a TD.
During TU's next possession, on fourth-and-3 from the Marshall 10, Singleton ran for 3 yards and he scored two plays later for a 17-3 lead.
In the third quarter, on fourth-and-2 from the Marshall 36, Singleton rocked forward for 6 yards. The conversion led to Singleton's third TD and a 24-17 Hurricane lead. TU held on for a 45-38 win.
Hurricane vs. UTEP
Oct. 11, H.A. Chapman Stadium
On fourth-and-1 from the UTEP 13, Singleton got a 3-yard gain. The possession ended with a field goal and a 6-3 second-quarter advantage for the Hurricane.
After having been sluggish during the first half, TU's offense opened the second half with a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The possession was sustained when Singleton got 6 yards on fourth-and-1 from the Tulsa 34, and the possession ended with Singleton's 1-yard TD run.
Tulsa prevailed 33-11.
Hurricane at Houston
Nov. 10, Houston
On fourth-and-1 from the Houston 8, Cody Green kept the football for a 2-yard gain. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Green perfectly executed a handoff fake, rolled to his right on a bootleg and scored easily. Early in the fourth quarter, Tulsa's lead had become 31-0. The Cougars were finished.
With a 41-7 triumph, Tulsa improved to 6-0 in Conference USA.
C-USA: UCF (8-2, 6-0) AT TU(8-2, 6-0)
11 a.m. Saturday
Chapman Stadium, Tulsa
Radio: KRMG am740, fm102.3
Original Print Headline: Fourth-And-Go
Bill Haisten 918-581-8397
Cody Green has been a key part of several fourth-down conversions. TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World
Alex Singleton ran 48 yards for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 against Marshall. RANDY SNYDER / For the Tulsa World
TU’s Keyarris Garrett pulls in a touchdown pass as Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse tries to defend earlier this season. The play came on fourth-and-13 from the Bulldog 31-yard line. TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World