Derek Mason wasn't entirely wrong to punt late in Saturday's game, but the move raises a question

It is understandable, even reasonable, to defend Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason's decision to punt on fourth down very late in Saturday's 13-6 loss to Florida. The key is not to debate the decision, but to examine the context surrounding it.

Old-time football people and new-age football people will continue to debate the constant tension between going for it and punting on fourth down. The old school believes in field position and leveraging the game from that vantage point. The new school believes in using every chance available to score, realizing that a team can't score without the ball. "You can't win if you don't play."

This debate was resurrected by Derek Mason's late-game decision on Saturday against Florida in Nashville. It was frustrating to a lot of fans to see VU willingly give up the ball, knowing it would -- at most -- get one more crack at the ball, and with zero timeouts left with a backup quarterback under center.

Yet, the point of this piece is not to say that one side was right and that a different line of thought was wrong. The contours of this debate are so worn and familiar that they don't need to be talked about again.

Let's mention one point of comparison to drive home the idea that Mason's move -- while debatable -- certainly had some logic behind it.

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You might recall that a few weeks before Saturday, Texas played at California in a late-night game in Berkeley. Around 1 a.m. Central time, the Longhorns and Golden Bears wound their way into the final minutes of a 50-43 game. Texas coach Charlie Strong punted on fourth down and medium in his own territory with under two minutes left. 

That was a patently indefensible decision for a very simple reason: Strong willingly gave up the ball to an opposing offense which had already hung "half a hundred" on his obviously deficient defense. The lack of logic in that move is hard to fathom, even now... and it explains why Strong is very much on the hot seat.

Forget the specific tensions between going for it and punting, as they exist in a vacuum. The larger considerations are what should matter, and this is where Mason's move is reasonable, even though it will always be debated. 

Mason made his move to punt in a 13-6 game. Strong punted in a 50-43 game. Playing field position -- even that late in a game -- makes a certain amount of sense in a low-scoring affair. Maybe a punt can be blocked. Maybe a punt return can bust open a chance to score. The move, narrowly viewed, is not one I would have made, but I can see the logic. 

The problem with Mason's coaching in those final minutes -- and with Vanderbilt's sagging, lagging offense in general -- is the larger context.

Specifically, the play BEFORE the punt is what makes it hard to understand what's going on in Nashville on one side of the ball.

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Fans and analysts both get caught up in what is often a false football debate: "Should a team run or pass in this situation?"

A conservative pass is worse than an aggressive run. A run which shows creativity and tries to catch a defense off guard can be a lot better than a simple slant pass the defense can see a mile away. Run or pass is a limited question. "What kind of run will you call," or "What kind of pass play will you choose," are real questions, substantive questions. Aggression and cleverness are the primary qualities a team should want in its offensive coordinator.

Andy Ludwig, Vanderbilt's offensive coordinator, fell woefully short of a reasonable standard of quality on the play before the punt.

Vanderbilt didn't merely run the ball. The run was a simple play, between the tackles, bereft of a wrinkle, a change of pace, a change of direction, or a funky formation which might have led Florida's (young, banged-up) front seven to hesitate or get caught off balance. 

Typically, in four-down situations, a third-down run is called precisely to make the fourth-down distance shorter and more manageable. The third-down run sets up the fourth-down play call, making the defense more run conscious as a result of a move against tendency. (On third and medium, especially late in a game, defenses expect a pass. A run can make a defense re-think to the point of paralysis.)

This is the problem with Ludwig and Vanderbilt's offense: If a failure on third down was going to be followed by a punt, there's no way a run should have been called. A run made sense only to the extent that a fourth-down play would have followed.

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It's unfortunate, but impossible to ignore: Vanderbilt has allowed just 13 points in two separate SEC East home games this season, to South Carolina and Florida. This defense has done far more than its share of heavy lifting, and yet has nothing to show for it.

Go back to 1999. Woody Widenhofer's team frustrated Florida back when Steve Spurrier was coaching the Gators. Florida and Spurrier walked off the field frustrated, even embarrassed, after another 13-6 game against Vanderbilt...

... but the Gators still won. 

This "half-a-loaf" identity -- getting one side of the ball so fully right, but having the other side of the ball remain so utterly wrong -- has existed at VU for a long time. It existed under Woody. It existed under Bobby Johnson. It's very much in evidence again under Mason and Ludwig, his coordinator. 

The basic plan of leaning on the defense is not a bad one for Mason and VU.

The larger plan -- how does the offense fit into the blueprint, and how third-down calls and fourth-down decisions relate to each other -- is what Derek Mason must truly address.


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