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UCLA Football’s Jim Mora Can Save His Job by Keeping the Punter off the Field

Mora has been far too quick to send his punt team out on the field, probably due to his conservative NFL mindset.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington State
Jim Mora needs to see as little of Austin Kent and Stephan Flintoff as possible this season if he hopes to save his job.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, after the Stanford game, I blasted UCLA coach Jim Mora for his conservative NFL mindset. In that article, I mentioned that there is statistical evidence that football coaches should never punt. Well, last month, I read a very interesting article on, SB Nation’s Washington State sister site, about how Mike Leach embodies the “Never Kick” philosophy.

But, to me, the most interesting information in that article was the interactive chart that was included. The chart ranks every team in the FBS by what CougCenter calls their #NeverKick percentage. That’s the percentage of fourth downs where a team goes for the first down, rather than attemping a field goal or punting. In Washington State’s case, they were ranked #1 in the nation in 2014 with a #NeverKick percentage of almost 38%. The Cougs were 3rd in 2015 with a 34.5% #NeverKick percentage and 5th last season with a 33.3% percentage.

So, where does UCLA rank? Well, take a look for yourself. Just change the team to UCLA. Or compare the Bruins to the rest of the Pac-12 or teams from other conferences.

Of course, I analyzed the raw data as well.

UCLA on Fourth Down under Jim Mora

Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
2012 UCLA 122 22 18.03% 78 63.93% 22 18.03% 11 50.00%
2013 UCLA 88 21 23.86% 55 62.50% 12 13.64% 5 41.67%
2014 UCLA 108 22 20.37% 70 64.81% 16 14.81% 9 56.25%
2015 UCLA 101 24 23.76% 64 63.37% 13 12.87% 8 61.54%
2016 UCLA 106 22 20.75% 73 68.87% 11 10.38% 5 45.45%
Total 525 111 21.14% 340 64.76% 74 14.10% 38 51.35%
Total without 2016 419 89 21.24% 267 63.72% 63 15.04% 33 52.38%
Total w/o Hi & Lo 297 67 22.56% 189 63.64% 41 13.80% 22 53.66%

Basically, the way this breaks down is that, four out of every six fourth downs, you can expect Jim Mora to punt the football, one out of every five fourth downs, you can expect a field goal attempt and, a little less than one of every six, you can expect him to go for it.

Last season was the worst of the Mora era and it’s somewhat understandable. When you can’t count on the offense to gain anything on the ground, you can’t possibly expect a coach to show any faith in his offense players and that was definitely the case last season as the Bruins only went for it on fourth down a little more than 10% of the time.

But, the year before, it wasn’t much better at just 12.87%.

The entire Mora era has been generally bad when it comes to aggressive football. Mora’s best “Never Kick” percentage was in his first season when it was just over 18%. That ranked 70th out of 123 FBS teams in 2012, while Mora’s worst was last season when the team was 124th of 128 FBS teams.

So, the question becomes what will Jim do this season? Will he be more less conservative this season knowing that his job may be on the line if he doesn’t win? Will he show a renewed faith in his offense to get the job done by going for it more on fourth down? Or, maybe more likely, will he show faith in his new offensive coordinator by letting Jedd Fisch make the call?

If the latter is the case, it might behoove us to know what Jedd Fisch’s tendencies are. So, let’s look at the college programs that Fisch has been associated with.

Jedd Fisch’s Teams on Fourth Down

Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
2009 Minnesota 103 17 16.50% 71 68.93% 15 14.56% 5 33.33%
2011 Miami 79 14 17.72% 48 60.76% 17 21.52% 8 47.06%
2012 Miami 97 25 25.77% 55 56.70% 17 17.53% 8 47.06%
2015 Michigan 93 22 23.66% 55 59.14% 16 17.20% 6 37.50%
2016 Michigan 98 24 24.49% 54 55.10% 20 20.41% 13 65.00%
Total All Teams 470 102 21.70% 283 60.21% 85 18.09% 40 47.06%
Total w/o Hi & Lo 288 71 24.65% 164 56.94% 53 18.40% 27 50.94%

Generally speaking, Fisch’s teams have tended to go for it more than Mora’s teams. Fisch’s teams have broken the 20% mark on fourth down twice in his last five college football seasons including last year at Michigan and, over five seasons, Fisch’s teams go for it a little more than 18% of the time. That’s about equal to Mora’s high-water mark.

So, if Mora suddenly starts going for it a lot more often on fourth down, I would be inclined to chalk that up to either Fisch’s influence or Mora being desperate to save his job. After all, Rick Neuheisel saw a spike in his fourth down conversion attempts in his final year, but, at the same time, that continued his trend of going for it on fourth down more often every year. Mora has had the opposite trend.

But I’m willing to guess that, if Mora finishes this season going for it less than 15% of the time, UCLA will be looking for new head coach at the end of this season.

And, since AP writer Ralph Russo is convinced that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly will be hired by the Bruins, let’s look at Kelly’s fourth down tendencies to compare him against Mora.

Oregon on Fourth Down under Chip Kelly

Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
Year Team 4th Downs FG Attempts FGA % Punts Punt % 4th Down Attempts Never Kick % 4th Down Conversions Conversion %
2009 Oregon 104 20 19.23% 62 59.62% 22 21.15% 15 68.18%
2010 Oregon 94 17 18.09% 43 45.74% 34 36.17% 22 64.71%
2011 Oregon 94 13 13.83% 49 52.13% 31 32.98% 14 45.16%
2012 Oregon 96 14 14.58% 51 53.13% 31 32.29% 20 64.52%
Total 388 64 16.49% 205 52.84% 118 30.41% 71 60.17%
Total w/o Hi & Lo 190 27 14.21% 100 52.63% 62 32.63% 34 54.84%

Wow. Kelly looks the anti-Mora when it comes to fourth down. This may account for why Oregon football under Kelly was so explosive. Of course, at the same time, it might also have something to do with the fact that, with the exception of Kelly’s first year, the Ducks faced fourth down less than 100 times per season.

If that’s the key, then maybe Fisch does have the answers for UCLA since four of his five college teams have faced fewer than 100 fourth downs. Whereas, by comparison, only one of Mora’s five Bruin teams has faced fewer than 100 fourth downs in a season.

There are two other interesting stats that stick out to me here.

The first is the number of times teams are punting on fourth down and the second is the percentage of the time teams are punting on fourth down. Kelly’s Oregon teams never punted more than 62 times in a season and they never punted on more than 60% of their fourth down while Fisch’s last four college football teams haven’t punted more than 55 times in a season and they haven’t punted more than 61% of the time either.

Three of Mora’s teams have punted more than 70 times in a season. The 2015 team punted 64 times and only the 2013 team, at 55, punted less than 60 times all year. All of Mora’s Bruin teams have all punted at least 62.5% of the time on fourth down.

So, when the Bruins’ season starts next Sunday, we’ll finally get to see the new UCLA offense in action and we’ll be able to get a good idea right away as to the kind of season it’s going to be.

Some of the keys offensively should be punting fewer than 5 times, punting on fewer than 60% of fourth downs and keeping the number of fourth downs to 8 or less. If the Bruins can’t execute on any of these, it will be a long season and Kelly may want to email his resume to Dan Guerrero.

Go Bruins!!!