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Northwestern struggles when it gets '3rd and manageable'

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The Wildcats are not good at converting third-and-short, another reason NU can go deep more often.

Hannah Foslien

After the loss to Minnesota almost two weeks ago, Pat Fitzgerald said, "If I'm going to be in third down, I'll take third and six all day. I think we can get those."

The concept is concrete. Northwestern should want their third down conversions to be as short and easy as possible. However, the Wildcats aren't very good at moving the chains on third-and-short, and based on their horrid second down production, NU seems to be purposefully setting themselves up for the situation.

Northwestern's third down stats (courtesy of cfbstats.com):

Situation No. Ypp 1st downs Conv. %
3rd down 123 5.6 49 39.8
3rd and 1-6 72 5.5 34 47.2
3rd and 7-9 18 8.2 8 44.4
3rd and 10+ 33 4.6 5 15.2

Northwestern ranks 75th in the country on third down, where they convert almost 40 percent of the time. Their conversion rate only increases to 47 percent when they are within six yards of the first, so they should probably be avoiding the situation, rather than embracing it.

The third down numbers could be a lot worse if Trevor Siemian wasn't effective when the 'Cats need to move the chains. When Northwestern has passed the ball on third-and-1-9 yards, they have averaged 8.2 yards per play, which is substantially better than Siemian's overall 5.6 yards per attempt on the season.

Pass plays No. Ypp 1st downs Conv. %
3rd downs 87 7.2 36 41.4
3rd and 1-6 48 7.4 23 47.9
3rd and 7-9 14 10.9 8 57.1
3rd and 10+ 25 4.8 5 20.0

The 'Cats are particularly successful on third-and-7-9, where they've converted 57 percent of the time. It's a small sample size, with just 14 attempts in the given situation, but it shows Northwestern is still very capable of converting on third and moderately long.

NU's success in the intermediate passing game on third down suggests they could take more shots on either first or second down. Instead, they are throwing short routes that are averaging around 5 yards per attempt. Considering Justin Jackson is averaging 4.95 yards on his first and second down carries, NU should probably either be running or at least looking downfield with their first two plays.

Jackson is far less efficient on third downs than he is on average. He's rushing for 2.64 yards per third down carry, and the team has not converted anything beyond third-and-3 on the ground.

Run plays No. Ypp 1st downs Conv. %
3rd downs 36 1.75 11 30.6
3rd and 1-6 24 1.54 11 45.8
3rd and 7-9 4 -1.25 0 0
3rd and 10+ 8 3.88 0 0

Plain and simple, Northwestern is not good on third down. They need to shake up what they are doing on third downs, and what they do before third down.

The risk of going deep on early downs is minimized because as long as they avoid sacks and penalties, the odds of moving the chains remain roughly the same. The Wildcats have been just about as good converting third-and-9 as they have third-and-4. It's time that Northwestern opens up the playbook because being content with third-and-six all day isn't working.