Why KU football fans should expect more fourth-down gambles this season

Jayhawks’ fourth-down conversion rate near bottom of FBS last season

Kansas running back Dom Williams runs past the Southeast Missouri State defense during the first half of Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. The Jayhawks won, 38-16. (The Associated Press)

LAWRENCE — Doug Meacham has a Las Vegas-like approach to fourth-down scenarios.

 

Meacham, the first-year Kansas football offensive coordinator, has a chart that recommends when his team should press its luck and when it should punt, a scenario he likens to a popular casino card game.

“It’s kind of like when you go to Vegas, the blackjack card (that tells you) when to take a hit on 12,” Meacham said Thursday. “We kind of have that for fourth downs.”

That chart is not uncommon among college football coaches, but as Meacham explains, his version is probably more aggressive than what his counterparts consult.

“It’s like if I coach baseball, I’d probably steal a little bit more than these guys do,” Meacham said. “I mean, make them make a play. You go for it on fourth down, make them make a play. You punt or try a 48-yard field goal, that’s kind of a buzzkill to me. Let’s just go.

“If they ask me, I’m going to say go every time. If you cross that 50, let’s go.”

Meacham’s aggressive philosophy should be a welcome sight for KU fans.

The Jayhawks were dreadful on fourth-down attempts last season, converting only five of 20 tries. While the 20 attempts was a middle-of-the-pack number — tied for 61st in FBS — their five conversions ranked 114th in the country, and their 25 percent conversion rate was 125th out of 128 teams.

Meacham and the Jayhawks converted their lone fourth-down attempt in last weekend’s 38-16 victory over Southeast Missouri State, a fourth-and-1 from the Redhawk 25 in the first quarter. After several instances of KU burning timeouts to debate fourth-down decisions last season, the Jayhawks were decisive in going for it Saturday, needing almost no time to make the call.

According to Meacham, that’s by design.

“We have plays set aside for that situation,” Meacham said. “There’s a lot of math involved in that, a lot of data on when and when not to. … They let me know, and it helps me because on third down I can do something that maybe we can be a little abstract because I know I’ve got another one.”

Meacham said KU (1-0), which hosts Central Michigan (1-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday, will “probably go for it more on fourth down than the average team will.”

As for the “buzzkill” that is punting, the Jayhawks had six of those against the Redhawks, a mark Meacham speculated may have been a not-so-pleasant personal high mark.

“We had a stretch there, I don’t know how many times we punted in a row, but that was like a world record for me,” Meacham lamented. “I mean, there were a couple of times at some of the other places I’ve been, I know we went three games one time and punted twice. If you’re going to go fast, you can’t go three-and-out. We just cannot.”

The Jayhawks had four three-and-out series against the Redhawks — but also had four touchdown-scoring drives of three plays or fewer.

TALIB, HARRIS SHINING EXAMPLES — Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen always greets returning All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris with open arms.

Talib and Harris, the secondary duo that makes up part of the Denver Broncos’ “No Fly Zone,” were in town for the Jayhawks’ opener to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 Orange Bowl-winning team and spent time around young KU cornerbacks Hasan Defense and Shak Taylor.

Bowen, who coached both Talib and Harris, said seeing such successful products of the KU defense’s demanding system always uplifts current players.

“We teach the best press technique in football and it’s probably the hardest to learn in football,” Bowen said. “Aqib told me it took him a training camp and 10 weeks to master what we teach in our press technique, and kids go through a learning curve out there at corner where when a technique doesn’t work there’s immediate pain and suffering they suffer when it doesn’t work, so they lose confidence in it. So it’s good you can have Aqib and Chris come in and say, hey, when y’all get this down, it’s the best in the business.”

While Southeast Missouri State didn’t test the KU secondary often — the Redhawks had only 170 passing yards in the contest — Bowen saw positives in Defense and Taylor’s performance.

“They didn’t get in there and panic,” Bowen said. “They held in there and competed and were assignment-sound. I don’t know that they were 100 percent technique-sound, but they did challenge and they did compete.”

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