Hot Reads: In the Big Ten
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: In the Big Ten, Third-and-Long Was Deadly in 2018

March 07, 2019

There were some good offenses in the Big Ten last year. It's a defense-first conference, but factor that in via strength-of-schedule and the league had four teams rank inside the top 25 in S&P+ last season. Two more, Penn State and Nebraska, ranked in the top-third (1st to 43rd) nationally.

Compare that to eight in the top-third in the same stat for defense and you get a very general sense of how the Big Ten shades to defense. That manifests itself in a variety of ways on the field.

Perhaps the most extreme example, at least last season? The Big Ten was murder on offenses in third-and-long.

Of course, third-and-long is not an advantageous situation for offenses anyway. The national average conversion rate on third-and-7 or longer was somewhere around 24.6 percent last season and third-and-longs made up 12.1 percent of all third downs. Big Ten teams were actually in third-and-long situations less often than the national average (10.8 percent of all third downs) but worse as whole when they were there (22.8 percent conversion rate). Those two things probably aren’t unrelated from a play-calling perspective. 

Third-and-Long Percentage 12.1% 10.8%
Third-and-Long Conversion Rate 24.6% 22.8%

You can really see the difference by zooming back out to a national view. Half of the Big Ten teams finished in the bottom-third (88th – 130th) in third-and-long conversion percentage. Another four were in the middle-third.

That leaves three teams that were relatively successful when behind the chains on third down. Ohio State, the league's best offense per S&P+, ranked 17th in third-and-long conversion rate. Wisconsin, the Big Ten's second-best offense, ranked 33rd.

Iowa, a slightly above average (54th) offense by S&P+, was shockingly good at succeeding despite the odds, ranking eighth in third-and-long conversion rate (33.7 percent). Having two first-round caliber tight ends helped a lot in that regard. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant combined for 16 catches on third-and-long. Fourteen of those catches (87.5 percent) went for a first down. That was more than half of Iowa's total third-and-long conversions via the pass last season. It was the kind of unique circumstance an offense needed to succeed on third-and-long in the Big Ten in 2018.

Nebraska, a pretty good offense overall, struggled mightily here. The Huskers ranked 120th. It may not have been that noticeable because Nebraska displayed solid avoidance behavior here, ranking 31st nationally in third-and-long percentage.

That's one easy-to-overlook growth areas for Nebraska's offense in 2019. There are reasons to expect improvement for that group as a whole and if that happens it wouldn't be a surprise to look up at the end of the year and see Nebraska was a little better still at avoiding third-and-long and had even bigger gains in conversion rate when it was there.

You'd have to look closely, but in the Big Ten that would probably count as a pretty big improvement.

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