3rd Down Offense in the Pac-10

Posted by: Avinash on Tuesday, April 15th, 2008
California UCLA Football

Numbers are always fun to look at, and this week I’m going to look at the all-too-crucial third down conversion. While I can’t generate anything as awesome as MGoBlog’s graphs, I can do some basic breakdown of numbers.

The Division I rushing yards per carry ranking is listed in parentheses.

Rushing 3rd and 1-3 3rd and 4-6 3rd and 7-9 3rd and 10+ 3rd down
Arizona 11–21 (8) 1–6 (114) 1–5 (117) 0–8 (46) 13–40 (78)
ASU 25–39 (62) 3–18 (102) 1–15 (114) 1–12 (56) 30–84 (110)
Cal 23–34 (33) 2–4 (1) 1–3 (12) 1–10 (14) 27–51 (6)
Oregon 26–37 (24) 9–19 (4) 4–8 (23) 4–18 (60) 43–82 (8)
OSU 25–40 (32) 1–11 (95) 1–11 (87) 1–15 (98) 28–77 (84)
Stanford 12–27 (116) 3–11 (110) 2–16 (104) 1–15 (109) 18–69 (119)
UCLA 23–36 (14) 4–16 (89) 2–12 (61) 2–23 (79) 31–87 (62)
USC 29–36 (11) 4–10 (57) 3–13 (42) 1–22 (58) 37–81 (30)
UW 25–36 (98) 7–13 (32) 2–9 (20) 1–11 (86) 36–69 (57)
Wazzu 8–15 (88) 3–11 (29) 4–12 (29) 0–8 (13) 15–46 (21)

As you can see, the Golden Bears run it up yard-wise on 3rd down. While on the 3rd and short situations Cal performed modestly (33rd, 6th in the Pac-10), they also ran the ball even stronger in unlikely running situations, primarily because the passing game was supposed to be so feared. This goes to show that even if Cal’s running backs don’t pick up a 1st down on 3rd and long, they picked up a significant chunk of yardage. Tedford appeared to minimize risk on his 3rd down situations, going for the run in the obvious situation and going for the pass in the obvious situation, with contrasting results (as you will soon see). However, in terms of total yardage gained, there’s no doubt Forsett, Montgomery and Best did their job.

Oregon might not have picked up as much yardage per third down attempt, but they made up for it with a plethora of conversions. The Ducks picked up 43 on the season, nearly half in situations that were longer than 3 yards. Obviously this is the strength of Dixon and Stewart at work; for Oregon to be feared as far out as 3rd and 10 to either run or pass made it difficult for a defense to adjust until Dixon’s leg gave out in the desert.

Interestingly, Arizona is awesome on short 3rd down rushing situations. Why is that? Because the Wildcats pass so damned much that it’s almost a surprise when they run, even on 3rd and short. Ditto 3rd and long. It was just everything in the middle that made the Wildcats look pretty inept.

Washington State had a similar situation with Alex Brink–because they were a pass-oriented team, the run options were open on third down, and the offense took advantage of the situation (finishing 21st in yards per carry in the country). Unfortunately, once the running game stalled, they had to go the air, and the results were less than desirable for the Cougars. Ditto Washington, who seemingly went crazy on the ground in situations where a 1st down conversion was not likely. No one feared Jake Locker’s arm last year.

Contrast that to Arizona State, who were so inept in their third down run game it’s almost impossible to comprehend how they won ten games. Apparently if the situation wasn’t short-yardage (1 to 3 yards), Dennis Erickson must have come up with mind-numbing, terrible running calls. Perhaps total yards per carry doesn’t mean as much as it should if ASU can finish 110th in that category and still finish where they finished.

So considering how great Cal was at picking up yards on the ground, you’d expect another ten win season from the Bears, right?

You know where this is going. After the jump, here comes 3rd down passing offense.

This time, Division I passing efficiency rankings are in parenthesis.

Passing 3rd and 1-3 3rd and 4-6 3rd and 7-9 3rd and 10+ 3rd down
Arizona 9–20 (42) 16–39 (22) 6–20 (62) 12–60 (20) 43–139 (20)
ASU 6–16 (9) 16–29 (19) 10–25 (3) 14–51 (15) 46–121 (2)
Cal 7–17 (45) 20–34 (6) 12–37 (108) 7–38 (109) 46–126 (75)
Oregon 6–12 (83) 12–34 (112) 14–33 (2) 9–48 (57) 41–127 (48)
OSU 14–24 (27) 13–31 (61) 7–25 (80) 8–51 (83) 42–131 (70)
Stanford 4–11 (104) 14–30 (92) 8–32 (96) 8–42 (94) 34–115 (112)
UCLA 6–15 (100) 8–36 (116) 15–34 (49) 4–35 (118) 33–120 (115)
USC 13–23 (14) 14–32 (20) 11–28 (28) 6–33 (68) 44–116 (15)
UW 6–19 (116) 12–32 (71) 8–34 (85) 9–39 (106) 35–124 (111)
Wazzu 12–23 (75) 18–38 (74) 11–29 (48) 12–42 (30) 53–132 (59)

Cal’s offense appears fine on 3rd and short, and pretty good in the mix-and-match situation (3rd and 4-6 can be either a good passing or good running situation); because of the offensive weapons at their disposal, this situation looks ideal. But when you get past that, the drop is precipitous. On 3rd and 7 and longer, Cal was dead last in the Pac-10 and near the bottom ten in the country in passing efficiency. Although the conversion rate is higher for Cal than other teams, (like Stanford or Oregon State or Washington), the passing offense turned over the ball enough on these third down plays. Not exactly the desired result you’d want from an elite receiving corps and a highly touted junior quarterback.

Now, we can say that Longshore’s ankle hindered him on 3rd and long situations, making it harder for him to throw the ball far enough to the receiver. And sometimes he would overcompensate by overthrowing the ball over his receivers and right into the defenders. So after the Oregon game, Cal essentially became a three down team unable to march down the field at will.

The other is that opposing defenses clamp down on receivers in 3rd and long situations, going to coverage formations to watch out for the pass. It would explain the enormous run gains Cal got on 3rd and long. Yet the passing game shouldn’t have dropped off that much because the threat of the Forsett run was there and defenses had to make sure they had a counter to it. Tedford did have good plays for 3rd and long didn’t he?

Dennis Dixon and the Ducks were surprisingly bad on 3rd and short passing situations, but in obvious passing situations Oregon excelled. The Ducks were a run-oriented team first, so it’s a little quizzical as to the reason Oregon didn’t take advantage of a defense expecting run on 3rd and short. However, Dixon showed he could make the play when the defense was expecting the pass and a first down was probable (2nd in the country on 3rd 7-9 plays).

Arizona State made up for their terrible running by being efficient in the passing game. Rudy Carpenter, for all his deficiencies, is a pretty strong 3rd down passer. While ASU’s run game was very weak on 3rd down, Carpenter made up for it by passing the ball effectively against opposing Pac-10 defenses, something that grew more vital as the game wore on and the Sun Devils started wearing down their opponents. Oregon and USC soon figured out how to halt any possible Sun Devil comeback: Pressure Rudy Carpenter until he becomes part of the earth.

USC was pretty methodical with their third down conversion game, but they got the job done (30th on rushing yards per carry, and 15th in passing efficiency). John David Booty might not be an NFL QB anytime soon, but he was exactly the type of leader USC needed to get those Ws rolling on the board and not cough up the ball.

And they didn’t have to go schizophrenic with one side of the ball (like the Sun Devils); running/passing balance was key to their victories, as it is in most college football environs. If the Trojans rushed on 3rd and short, they converted the first down more times than any other Pac-10 team, and were pretty consistent in their numbers converting 1st downs in the passing game up to 3rd and 10. Another yeomen effort by the Men from Troy.

Oregon State’s whole key to winning? Get in 3rd and real short situations. Anything higher than 4 yards and the Beaver offense could almost be guaranteed to punt. But in 3rd and real short, Yvenson Bernard can power for that 1st down and Canfield has a good enough opportunity to find what he’s looking for.

The less said for UCLA, the better. Apparently their strategy was similar to Oregon State (get in 3rd and short situations), except to run that damned ball everytime. In every other situation (3rd and 4+ running, 3rd and anything passing), they were near the bottom in the Pac-10. Their quarterbacks were bad in almost every 3rd down situation, which makes you wonder how Slick Rick will adjust Patrick Cowan’s game in his twenty-fifth year of eligibility.

And finally, the ‘Furd was just plain terrible at third down conversions, finishing dead last in rushing yardage on 3rd downs and pretty close to the bottom in passing efficiency. And they won four games, including the Big one. That says a lot about college football right there, doesn’t it?

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