The Maryland football team doesn't get a lot of chances to score points. Because the Terrapins' offense doesn't have much going for it beyond punt returner Will Likely and a few skilled receivers, the Terps don't spend a lot of time threatening opposing defenses. That's a big problem, and Maryland's head coach is actively making it worse by cutting offensive possessions short with punts.
It's common sense that the most valuable thing in the sport is possession of the football, because teams mostly cannot score without it. It follows naturally, then, that teams should do everything in their power to keep possession of the ball. It follows even more naturally that they shouldn't cede clear scoring chances by way of the punt, because those chances don't come around often. In fact, punts give those chances to the other team, albeit 30 or 40 yards fewer away. For a team like Maryland, which regularly gets gashed for that much yardage in just a few plays, the punt is a mostly futile endeavor.
But don't tell that to Randy Edsall.
Against West Virginia on Saturday, Edsall called for seven punts. The results of the ensuing West Virginia possessions, in order, were: touchdown, touchdown, field goal attempt, touchdown, punt, touchdown, punt. '
Maryland averaged 39 yards per punt and put the Mountaineers in disadvantageous field position (inside their own 20-yard line) exactly once. The Mountaineers fielded Maryland punts and immediately marched to score four touchdowns and try a field goal. Just look at this drive chart, and how Maryland's punts preceded long WVU drives.
This isn't an entirely new thing. In Maryland's loss to Bowling Green earlier this year, the Falcons scored touchdowns off two of Maryland's six punts, including only one launched from Bowling Green territory. Maryland also punted from inside midfield three times against South Florida. None netted more than 30 yards, although just one led directly to USF points.
When it comes to punting, especially in shorter yardages, Edsall is basically Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill forever and ever and never reaching the top. He never, ever will, because punting is dumb.
Last year, The New York times published a really cool feature about the costs and benefits of particular fourth-down conversion tries. It's based on NFL data, but since NFL teams play on the same-sized fields and with the same risk-averse coaches as college teams, it's reasonably instructive here, too. Its basic message is that coaches should usually go for it on fourth-and-short and should only punt from inside midfield in rare situations, such as fourth down-and-7 or longer.
For Maryland, which has an inexperienced primary punter (Nicolas Pritchard) and bad offense and defense, punting against a team of West Virginia's caliber is nonsense. If West Virginia's going to rack up 602 yards of total offense, it's not going to make a huge difference whether Maryland pushes the offense 40 yards deeper to start drives or simply gives it up within five plays, as happened on three separate post-punt drives. And if Maryland's offense is going to get precious few chances to score points, the Terps can't afford to punt from anywhere near scoring distance.
As it happened, Maryland punted twice from inside West Virginia territory. The first punt, by Brad Craddock, was nominally successful, as Maryland downed it at West Virginia's 7-yard line. Great, except Maryland's bad defense gave up the punt's entire 35-yard net and then some in the next three plays. Maryland had faced a fourth down-and-13, so punting here wasn't that bad, except it was still useless on the whole. Maryland would have been just as well off going for a conversion and probably failing, because Maryland's defense can't defend the extra 35 yards anyway.
That wasn't good, but it was much better than what came next.
The second sub-midfield punt came on the next series, on a more makable fourth-and-5 from the West Virginia 46, and Craddock boomed it into the end zone for a touchback. That 26-yard net was useless, too (WVU gained it all back in two snaps), and Maryland surrendered a decent scoring chance. The Terps would only get back inside midfield once for the rest of the first half, when Brandon Ross ran 55 yards and then fumbled through the end zone.
Edsall deserves credit, by the way, for taking just the opposite approach on Maryland's opening drive of the game. Facing fourth-and-1 at the West Virginia 39, Edsall decided to try to convert and thereby keep his offense in position to post a few points. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley called for a curious outside run that resulted in Wes Brown being decked behind the line by the Mountaineers' best player, Karl Joseph, but Edsall's assessment of the situation was correct and likely to leave Maryland with a better outcome. What's discouraging is that Edsall relied on results, not process, in opting for punt-happiness later in the game.
There are situations where punting makes rational sense. For instance, if you've got a stingy defense and a long down and distance inside your own 40-yard line, by all means, punt. But if you've got an inefficient offense and a leaky defense that can't stop a team, you can't afford to give possessions away for what amounts to almost no relative payoff. Edsall did, anyway, and Maryland was worse off because of it.