Remember the early 2010s in the college football universe? It was a time before the BCS became antiquated, when Northern Illinois was a virtual lock to appear in the MAC Championship Game, when the Big East remained in operation, and when Oregon vs. Stanford was a perennial Top 10 matchup.
From conference realignment to creative uniform redesigns to the dawn of social media marketing, it was most importantly a time for experiment and transitioning for the century-old sport. But one revolutionary idea from the early 2010s didn’t quite survive to the 2020s.
Under former head coach Chip Kelly, and eventually his successor Mark Helfrich, the Oregon Ducks seemed to be the poster child to represent modern innovation of college football. But this modernization label didn’t just stem from sporting 800+ uniform combinations and groundbreaking facilities. Oregon used to frequently convert 2-point attempts after its first touchdown each game instead of kicking the traditional extra point. And it worked.
After this gameplan’s general success under the Chip Kelly regime in Eugene, this idea is worth reviving in the current college football landscape. Perhaps there’s no better program to delve into this strategy than the Kent State Golden Flashes.
Why Kent State?
Kent State led the entire country in points per game with 49.8 in 2020. The Golden Flashes also ranked as the nation’s superior in yards per game (612.5) and first downs per game (32.3). Kent State’s schedule was limited to four games due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these lofty rankings come of no surprise to anybody who followed the 2019 Kent State program.
The Golden Flashes are built on a foundation of the “Flash Fast” offense. When Sean Lewis took the job for the 2018 season, he installed an aggressive, high-tempo scheme which allowed his skill players to flourish at new heights. Lewis’ offensive approach features a heavy rotation of skill position players, often utilizing fresh legs for snaps. No huddles are frequent and Kent State complicates things for defenders by stretching the field from sideline to sideline with its wide receivers, allowing more space for the offense to function. Screens, zone reads, and halfback sweeps serve as the meat and potatoes of this system, but Kent State isn’t afraid to have its eyes on the prize and take routine deep shots.
In 2017, one year prior to Lewis’ arrival, Kent State ranked 129th in scoring average. Upon the installation of the Flash Fast offense, the program boarded a bullet train which only needed three seasons to accelerate from the cellar to the pinnacle of offensive production.
Lewis’ offense already molded one quarterback from the backup on one of the most dormant offenses in the country to a starter on an electrifying unit. If there was a “most improved player” award in college football, Dustin Crum would have won by a landslide in 2019. Crum entered his junior season with a career completion percentage of 56, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, and laden with two touchdowns and three interceptions under his belt.
The signs of explosive progress within Crum, and the offense as a whole were noticeable during a 62-point outburst against Bowling Green in September 2019. That season, Crum completed 69.3 percent of passes on 9.4 yards attempt, complemented with 20 touchdowns and only two interceptions. As a follow-up act in a COVID-shortened 2020, Crum retained his stardom by completing 73.5 percent of passes (third in the FBS) for 10.5 yards per attempt (fifth in the FBS), adding 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Crum is also multidimensional — he’s one of the best mobile quarterbacks in the sport. He rushed for 707 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Last fall, he bolted for 60 rushing yards per game, racking up four rushing scores in four appearances. With his mastery of the zone read and ability to launch a quick screen or shovel, Crum is as dangerous as they come near the goal line.
Having a quarterback that excels when the pylons are in the peripherals will translate to success on 2-point conversions. And Lewis can get creative with goal line play-calling. Check out what Kent State drew up in situations from inside the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter of the 2019 Frisco Bowl — the program’s first-ever bowl victory.
Fake to the left, shovel to the right. Touchdown Kent State, on this crafty play from Dustin Crum to Antwan Dixon. 41-34, with 9:36 remaining in the Frisco Bowl. pic.twitter.com/5pMOCNPF7R— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) December 21, 2019
Crum’s vision on zone reads is impeccable. He pulls at the perfect moment, cuts inside his outside blocker, and hits paydirt in the end zone in a crucial situation.
Kent State doesn’t have an extensive history of attempting 2-point conversions under Sean Lewis, but the Golden Flashes have excelled in high-stakes and short yardage situations. In 2019, Kent State converted 8/12 4th down attempts before increasing that rate to 7/8 in 2020. Any coach in college football would dream of a running two-year 4th down conversion percentage of 75%, which demonstrates Lewis’ ability to execute in similar circumstances.
But what if a conversion fails? Kent State runs a fast-paced offense, and the explosiveness of the unit will be able to make up for lost points. If a team runs a “pound the rock, control the clock” style offense like Wisconsin or Rice, or a triple-option based scheme similar to Army or Navy, there are naturally fewer possessions. Thus, a greater degree of risk is added to this 2-point approach. But for Kent State, a team which nearly posted 50 points per game last season, this strategy will be worthwhile. All Kent State has to do is convert over 50%, which is more than feasible given Crum’s dual-threat abilities and the creativeness of Lewis’ play-calling.
An integral component of Oregon’s 2-point conversion strategy involved taking the field with the kicking unit and calling an audible to change formations, and vice versa. This is where Crum becomes especially dangerous. As a former holder, he’ll have the versatility to operate with the special teams unit in case of a kick, yet run the offense. A quick audible out of field goal formation into an offensive set could leave an unprepared defense guessing while amplifying Kent State’s success rate. If Kent State takes the field and bluffs a 2-point attempt, Crum will still be able to hold, and the fake field goal opportunity is always there given his speed.
Also, the status of Kent State’s 2021 kicking game is currently up in the air. Former First Team All-MAC kicker Matthew Trickett transferred to Minnesota this offseason, so the Golden Flashes will have to work in a new placekicker for extra points and field goals. Reliably sinking extra points should not be a concern for college football teams, but Kent State is 17/20 (85 percent) on extra points by all non-Trickett kickers since 2017.
How can Kent State benefit from this?
If Kent State can routinely score first, the Golden Flashes can change the outlook of the entire game. The strength of the 2021 team lies within the offense, so providing the defense an extra point of padding will be useful. But playing with an early 8-point deficit can cause teams to deviate from their initial gameplan. Resulting effects may involve teams going punch-for-punch with Kent State and attempting an vengeful 2-point try as a response. But if Kent State practices execution of these 2-point attempts regularly, the Golden Flashes should have a considerably higher success rate than opponents, as we’ll see in a case study of the Chip Kelly era Oregon Ducks.
Branding is also an important aspect in college football. MAC teams naturally do not reside in the rankings, host College GameDay, or receive national television appearances as much as other FBS teams. But success with style is an important part of building a program.
Look at 2020 Coastal Carolina. Without a single bowl appearance in its short FBS history, the Chanticleers lived in college football obscurity prior to last fall. But intricacies such as the teal field known as the “Surf Turf”, the Chanticleer mascot, the mullets, and the option-based offense became a major part of developing a Coastal Carolina fanbase and branding the team into the national spotlight which they reveled in during 2020.
The 2021 season is destined to be one of Kent State’s most successful yet. What if the Golden Flashes brand themselves as the lone program in the country that goes for 2 on their first touchdown? Could the unique style play a factor in a recruit’s decision? And if this strategy succeeds in an analytics-heavy era, Kent State could be pioneers of the newest movement in a 150-year old sport.
How did the strategy work for Oregon?
Overall, Oregon’s stretch of implementing the 2-point attempt should be considered a success.
From 2009-14 — which encompasses Chip Kelly’s entire coaching tenure and the first two years of the Mark Helfrich era — the Ducks greatly benefited from electing to go for two. Oregon featured top 10 scoring offenses every season during the 6-year span, and complementing the explosive offense’s success by leaving them on the field after touchdowns paid dividends.
Oregon converted on 25/38 (65.8%) 2-point attempts from 2009-14. Assuming a 100% extra point conversion rate, Oregon added 12 extra points to the scoreboard over this timespan. Meanwhile, the Ducks’ opponents, which weren’t as accustomed to practicing 2-point conversion sets, cashed in 5/17 (29.4%) of 2-point attempts. Under the 100% extra point conversion assumption, Oregon’s opponents lost six points over the span, giving Oregon a +18 advantage in the 2-point conversion department.
The Ducks especially excelled under this method during their 2010 BCS National Championship run, when they finished the season a field goal away from beating Auburn for their first-ever championship. Oregon tested this strategy during its most important game of the Chip Kelly era, successfully converting a 2-point conversion out of a fake field goal set in the second quarter to take an 11-7 lead.
Oregon attempts a 2-point conversion out of a fake field goal set vs. Auburn in the 2010 BCS National Championship pic.twitter.com/aiwj7QkExj— Steve Helwick (@s_helwick) March 10, 2021
This extra point later proved instrumental in the game when Oregon found itself down 19-11 in the game. Instead of trailing by two possessions, the Ducks managed to tie Auburn in the final minutes at 19 apiece after their second successful 2-point conversion. Overall, Oregon finished the season at a Chip Kelly-era best 87.5% on 2-point attempts.
Oregon directly won a game during this 2010 season by utilizing the strategy. In a November game against California, Kelly opted to go for 2 down 7-0. After a successful conversion, Oregon took command with an 8-7 lead and extended its lead to 15-7. When Cal scored the potential tying touchdown, the Golden Bears’ inability to convert two points handed Oregon a victory as a result Kelly’s decision-making.
The strategy slowly phased out during the Helfrich era, but one horrific showing against Nebraska ultimately put a dagger into the once-revolutionary idea. On a fateful 2016 afternoon in Lincoln, Oregon succeeded on its initial attempt to secure an 8-0 lead. But the Ducks failed on their ensuing four attempts and wound up suffering a 35-32 upset at the hands of the Cornhuskers. Leaving four points on the scoreboard in a close, heartbreaking defeat steered Helfrich away from the strategy. When Helfrich got fired after 2016, Willie Taggart took over the reigns of Oregon and did not elect to go for two points once in his lone year in Eugene. A promising tactic in college football suddenly vanished.
Upon the first major obstacle, Helfrich and his staff proved that they were not committed to the strategy advancing back to the mean, despite the outcome. Still, including Helfrich’s lackluster final two years at Oregon which featured a 4/19 success rate on 2-point conversions, the Ducks finished with an 8-year conversion percentage of 50.9%. That still produces a higher expected value of points than a 100% extra point kicking percentage.
If Kent State wants to adopt a strategy of incorporating the 2-point attempt into its game, it should look to its predecessor, which enjoyed a run of sustained success. Now, it’s up to Sean Lewis and the Golden Flashes’ offense to re-revolutionize college football.