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Penn State Football: Key To Third Down Might Be Execution More Than Distance

by on September 03, 2019 4:41 PM

Penn State's relationship with third down has been a complicated one over the past two seasons. In 2017 the Nittany Lions finished the year the fifth best team in the nation at 47.95% conversion rate. 

By the end of the 2018 season that average sat in the basement to the tune of 37.14%, which was 87th in the nation.

How a team struggles on third down is a complicated issue: inefficient play on first and second downs can lead to long yardage on third, a favorable situation for defenses. A bad start to a drive can often impact how soon that same drive will end.

"I think the reality is you want to get most of your first downs on first or second down and never be on third down," James Franklin said on Tuesday. "You want to limit your third downs as much as you possibly can. And then I think obviously you want to be in third-and-6 or less as much as you possibly can be, what I would characterize as manageable third downs. I'd prefer them all to be third and 1 or 2."

What's interesting about this is that Penn State's yardage situations in 2017 and 2018 didn't differ that greatly. In 2018 Penn State faced every third down distance nearly at an even clip, and in 2017 those figures were not all that different.

Third down distance 2018: (Yes, 46 shows up a lot)

  • 46 third downs 1-3 yards
  • 46 third downs 4-6 yards
  • 39 third downs 7-9 yards
  • 46 third downs 10+ yards

Third down distance 2017:

  • 52 third downs 1-3 yards
  • 41 third downs 4-6 yards
  • 28 third downs 7-9 yards
  • 50 third downs 10+ yards

In 2017 the Nittany Lions' third down conversion rate rolling toward 50% made Penn State one of the best teams in the nation, but they faced nearly an identical number of third downs in the one to six yard range in 2018. In 2018 the Nittany Lions went up against 92 third downs that fell within Franklin's preferred range. In 2017 Penn State faced 93 of those same types of downs. When it came to longer yardage situations, the difference between the 2018 and 2017 seasons was just seven downs of 7+ yard situations, hardly a big shift.

"I think the biggest thing is making sure that you're getting as many of your first downs as you possibly can on first down or second down, and then on third down for us to be the team we want to be, we need to be right around 50 percent," Franklin added. "That will put us at one of the top third down units in the country. It'll create more scoring opportunities for us. It'll keep our defense off the field and keep those guys fresh."

Well what about first and second down ball movement? In 2017 the Nittany Lions gained 186 first downs on first or second down, 71% of all first downs gained by the offense.

In 2018 that number was only slightly less: 178 first downs on the first two snaps, equating to 68% of all first downs gained through the air or on the ground. 

So where is the difference? It might be as simple as execution, not down and distance.

For example, Penn State threw the ball 84 times on third down in 2018, completing 32 of those passes for a completion rate of 38%, which comes in dead last in the nation. Slightly worse, of the 84 passes thrown on third down in 2018, just 22 of them equated to first downs.

Compare that to 2017 when the Nittany Lions put it in the air 102 times on third down, completing 69 of those passes, with 52 of those completions resulting in first downs, effectively a 50% success rate and twice as good as the following year.

An example of this: in 2018 Penn State completed 4-of-24 passes on third down when the distance was 7-to-9 yards. In 2017 the Nittany Lions completed 20-of-24 passes within that same yardage range.

2018 passing on third down: 32/84

  • 1-3 yards: 3/9
  • 4-6 yards: 11/24
  • 7-9 yards: 4/24
  • 10+ yards: 14/27

2017 passing on third down: 69/102

  • 1-3 yards: 11/17
  • 4-6 yards: 19/26
  • 7-9 yards: 20/24
  • 10+ yards: 19/35

"At this point in terms of our identity, I think that's still evolving to see not only as an offense on normal downs but on third down who are we," Franklin added. "What's going to be the best way we're going to be able to stay on the field on third down, whether that's running the ball, whether that's RPOs, whether that's quick game, whether that's pure drop-back, what is that, and obviously as the season goes, that's going to get more and more important."

There is little doubt that starting off a drive well is important, but in the case of the 2018 and 2017 seasons, and the drastic change in success on third down, it had less to do with the distance to gain than you might think and a lot more to do with those missed blocks and glaring drops.

So the goal in 2019 might be a simple one: don't do things different, just do them better.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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