CLEMSON, S.C. — Few things cause more anxiety in football than third down. Convert, and your offense gains momentum. Fail, and it’s a stressful wait until you get the ball again.
So far, the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, including its four undefeateds in No. 5 Clemson, No. 10 North Carolina State, No. 23 Florida State and Syracuse, have taken that worry out of their attack with improved third-down success.
The Tigers lead the league in converting 55% of their third-down situations on offense (35 of 64) while North Carolina State is next at 52%. The Seminoles which barely made a third of all their third downs last season, are at 51%
Still, as North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo says, the best way to be good at third downs is to avoid them.
“The best third-down teams in the country are the ones that get in it the fewest,” said Longo, whose unit is second in the ACC and ninth nationally at 52.8%
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney saw his team’s third-down conversions plummet in 2021, part of the offensive woes that ended their six-year run of ACC titles and College Football Playoff appearances.
With a new offensive coordinator in Brandon Streeter and two other new assistants on offense, Swinney and his staff tweaked how they practiced converting third downs. Kyle Richardson, the team’s new tight ends coach and pass game coordinator, said they separated red-zone work (plays inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) from third downs.
That led to more clarity and focus from players and what was expected on the critical down.
“Is there a magic wand we wave to do that? No,” Richardson said. “But we’ve gone about different in how we prepare.”
The Tigers converted 16 of 23 third down chances in a drama-filled, 51-45 overtime win at No. 22 Wake Forest last Saturday. They’ve scored 185 points this season compared with 87 through four games in 2021.
Former Georgia and Miami coach Mark Richt believes it is essential to communicate the importance of what’s at stake to your players, especially at quarterback.
Richt, an analyst at the ACC Network, said the quarterback must recognize the defensive scheme and where’s the best chance to pick up the necessary yards. There should be options that don’t always include running past the first-down marker before getting the ball.
“Sometimes, you have to check down and try and make a play,” he said.
Richt said most stats available to the public don’t detail how much yardage is needed to convert. If a team faces a lot of third downs where they might need seven or more yards, no matter their play calls “it’s probably not going to end well.”
Syracuse, tied with Florida State at the ACC bottom on third-down conversions last season, has hit on 20 of 50 such plays this season. The Orange have made 11 first downs by the run and nine by the pass.
Syracuse receiver Courtney Jackson credits new offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
The attack is “way more efficient and fluid and everything just makes sense right now,” Jackson said. “Last year was really tough, I think, on everybody. It’s good to see some light.”
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said his team has avoided sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage that make the difference between short and long third-down attempts.
“One negative play as far as run or pass situation is pretty critical,” he said. “And that’s a tribute to those down and distances when you’re ahead in the sticks a little bit.”
Longo said a big reason for the Tar Heels’ success on third down i s due to improved pass protection. Quarterback Drake Maye has more space to operate and find open receivers on all downs, not just the third.
Another facet, Longo said, is the aggressive nature of coach Mack Brown, who is third this season in the ACC with nine fourth-down tries.
Brown lets Longo know early he will have four downs to work with. “For a coach to be able to give it to me before even second down really has allowed us to be more efficient on second and third down,” Longo said.
Clemson tight end Davis Allen, who caught the winning touchdown at Wake Forest on third-and-six in the second overtime, has a new focus with the team’s approach to situational football. The Tigers, he said, anticipate the call coming and the importance of keeping the drive alive.
“No matter what, if the ball’s in our hands, we’ve got to get to the sticks, whether we’re behind or ahead,” Allen said.