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It’s third and long…again

Posted by cuorange on July 27, 2009

It’s common knowledge that Clemson struggled on third downs last year, finishing 111th of 119 teams and converting 29.94% of the time.  Close losses to Maryland (20-17), Wake Forest (12-7), Georgia Tech (21-17) and Nebraska (26-21) highlighted this issue even more, as in each of those games the Tigers missed opportunities to convert on crucial third downs that may have made the difference in each game.
On the opening drive of the Maryland game, Clemson drove 64 yards to face a 3rd and 2 at the Maryland 8.  An incomplete Cullen Harper pass later a Mark Buccholz field goal gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead.  The Tigers lost by 3.
Five days later Clemson went 2 for 14 on third downs, including 0 for 8 when the distance was between 7 and 10 yards in the loss to Wake Forest.  The Tigers lost by 5.
Dabo Swinney’s debut against Georgia Tech was marked by a 3 for 12 success rate on third down.  A third and 6 from the Tech 17 led to a sack of Harper and a Buccholz field goal.  The Tigers lost by 4.
The Tigers third down struggles reached epic proportions against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.  Sixteen times the Tigers faced a third down.  In only 3 instances did the Tigers successfully convert.  Six times the Tigers faced a third down in Nebraska territory.  One of these was converted.  Clemson lost by 5.
The table below shows how Clemson’s 2008 third down conversion rates compared to Oklahoma’s.  It’s not even close.  While the 1-3 yard category is relatively close the other three aren’t. 

Team 3rd and 1-3 3rd and 4-6 3rd and 7-10 3rd and 11 or more
Clemson 60.71% 38.10% 20.69% 8.33%
Oklahoma 67.19% 64.44% 38.33% 29.03%


What stands out more than anything though is how many times Clemson faced third and 7 or more.  Of 831 plays run the Tigers faced third and 7 or more a total of 84 times (10.1%).  One of every 10 plays the Tigers ran from scrimmage was a 3rd and 7 or more.  Incredible.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, faced 3rd and 7 or more only 91 times in 1,106 plays from the line of scrimmage (8.2%).   The Sooners ran 275 more plays than Clemson  and only faced third and 7 or more seven more times than Clemson.
It’s not rocket science to figure out that the Tigers need to avoid negative yardage plays, especially sacks of which the Tigers allowed 33 for 256 yards last year, ranking 103rd in the country.  Oklahoma you ask?  They allowed 13 sacks for 95 yards and finished 3rd in the nation in that category.
If 2009 follows the pattern of 2008 the Tigers will convert about 47% on 3rd and 6 or less.  Once the distance goes to seven or more the conversion rate falls to 16%.  The more mobile Willy Korn and/or Kyle Parker as well as an improved offensive line should help the Tigers avoid as many sacks and 3rd and longs this year and it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.  
*These numbers may not match the official NCAA stats because I treated all touchdowns as a conversion, even if the score would not officially be counted as a first down for NCAA statistical purposes.


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