Hot Reads: You Convert 100% of the Third Downs You Never Face
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: You Convert 100% of the Third Downs You Never Face

November 12, 2018

For all of Nebraska' good-and-improving offensive stats –– it's up to 15th nationally in yards per play, 17th in yards per rush — there's one that doesn't quite fit, one where the Huskers are keeping offenses like East Carolina, Oregon State, UTEP and Louisville company. It's third-down conversion percentage. The Huskers are currently converting 37.8 percent of their third downs, 87th nationally.

Against Illinois the Huskers were four-of-12 on third down. It was the seventh time this season Nebraska had been below the national average of 40 percent in a game (Northwestern, Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman being the outliers). For an offense that's put up at least 450 yards in seven straight games, what's the problem on third down?

I don't know right now. That will be a good offseason film study, but I do know right now that it actually isn't much of a problem because an offense, if it's moving the ball, can simply avoid third-down altogether.

That's how the Huskers are managing all of the current points and yards with a below-average conversion percentage.

The average FBS offense this season is converting 40 percent of 14.2 third-down attempts per game. To better account for the variety of offensive styles out there, some of which run more plays than others, the average FBS offense faces a third down on 20.2 percent of its plays this season.

Nebraska's offense has averaged 12.7 third-down attempts per game this season (15th nationally). Based on the percentage of plays (17.4), the Huskers rank seventh in the country. They may not be great on third down right now, but they're not in third down all that often. Per Bill Connelly's numbers Nebraska ranks sixth in the country in percentage of first downs picked up on first or second down (77.7). Bill Walsh would be OK with that.

I find this number interesting this week for a couple of reasons. First off, this week's opponent.

Michigan State enters Saturday's matchup ranked 14th in the country in opponent third-down conversion percentage (32.0). The Spartans have forced a third down on 21.8 percent of plays defended. That ranks 26th in the country. Michigan is the only Big Ten team that's better.

But unlike the Wolverines, Michigan State's defense isn't flat out dominant across the board; 69.7 percent of the Spartans first downs allowed have come on first or second down. That ranks 81st. That will offer a good health check of Saturday's game after about a quarter. If Michigan State's forcing third-down attempts, it's most likely doing what it needs to do to win. If Nebraska's offense isn't ending up in those situations, it's playing the way it wants to play.

The other reason I think this is notable now is that as the Huskers' yardage and point totals have climbed, it has become harder to see legitimate areas for improvement. At this point, with Adrian Martinez returning alongside some other key pieces, offseason expectations for Nebraska's offense will be through the roof.

But third-down efficiency is one of those areas. While it's nice for an offense to simply avoid third down, the best offenses do that and also convert third downs when they have to. Oklahoma ranks first nationally in percentage of third downs and 16th in conversion percentage. Alabama is second and third respectively in those categories.

As a counter example Michigan's offense isn't good at avoiding third downs (87th), but it's good when it gets there, converting 50.4 percent of the time (4th). That's the opposite of Nebraska right now, and both can work. Third down percentage is a common stat cited by coaches as being meaningful, but like everything else there is a push and pull involved with the basic number.

Given the way Nebraska hopes to play, however, the model is pretty clear. UCF last year was both good at avoiding and converting third downs. That's where the Huskers are headed, they're just not there yet.

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