BERKELEY -- One of the Bear Raid's biggest problems in 2013 has stemmed from California's inability to convert on third down. Heading into their game against Arizona, the Bears were 88th nationally in third down conversions at 37% on the season.
Several factors influence that number, from inexperience, to poor offensive line play, to dropped passes, and Cal has suffered from all three, as they did in Saturday's 33-28 loss to Arizona, the first time in the last seven meetings between the two teams that the visitors have come out on top.
The Bears could not even reach that 37% mark against the Wildcats, going 4-for-16 (25%). Some of that can be excused because of two fourth-down conversions on three attempts and a pass interference penalty giving Cal a first down on a third-and-20 play during the first drive of the game – a drive that led to a touchdown, marking the Bears' first lead of the season since the second week against Portland State, their first lead over a FBS opponent since Week One and the second time all season that they had scored on their first drive.
After that, though, the Bears struggled to convert on the down that they needed to convert. Even one more conversion could have turned a five-point deficit into a lead, and perhaps even a win.
The biggest reason for Cal's struggles on third down starts with the distances the Bears had to travel. Against the Wildcats, Cal's average third-down distance was 6.8 yards. Generally speaking, an offense's chance of converting on any third-and-six-plus is about 20%. Third-and-longs eliminate just about all of the rush plays from the playbook. The defense can go with appropriate personnel to focus on the receivers and not worry about gap assignments or stopping the run. In addition, the defense can attack the quarterback with different stunts and blitz packages, forcing quicker decisions or perhaps even going for the sack.
In that regard, when the offense had seven yards to go on third down, it is no surprise that the Bears only converted about 25% for the afternoon.
Breaking down Cal's third-down attempts on a play-by-play basis, the Bears had 10 third-down plays that had to go seven or more yards. Of those 10 plays, only 2 went for first downs – one coming on that fortuitous pass interference call on a 3rd-and-20. The other first down came on third-and-eight pass to running back Khalfani Muhammad in the flat, whose defender was picked out of the play. Both drives would end in touchdowns. On all 10 plays, the play call was for Jared Goff to pass. Officially on those 10 plays, Goff only went 2-for-7 for 15 yards with an interception. Of those 7 pass attempts, 6 plays would result in fourth down.
Of the 10 third-and-longs, the Bears converted a first down only twice (one via penalty), failed six conversions (leading to fourth down) and committed turnover. As far as the Bears are concerned, they would do themselves well if they avoided those third-down situations. The best way to counter that would be better execution on first and second downs, but the inconsistencies of the offense and the youth on all parts of the field have been an issue even for this.
But how about third-and-short plays? While every offense would love to avoid third downs altogether, third-and-four or less at least allows the staff to have most of the playbook available, while also exploiting matchups or tendencies that the defense would otherwise not bite on third-and-long plays. The defense has to respect the run, which could potentially leave them vulnerable on the play-action pass. For any college football offense, third-and-short should be converted on about 70% of the time.
Unfortunately for Cal, the offense did not fair much better on third-and-short. Six times the Bears faced third-and-three or better, and only twice did the Bears actually convert. The play calling was balanced in these situations with three passing plays versus three rushing plays. Still, Cal was just not good enough to continue drives.
"Our inability to convert short-yardage situations all year has been an issue," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "We've got to get better at that if we are going to beat a good football team, which Arizona is."
Passing the ball on third-and-short, Goff was 2-for-3 for 6 yards. One pass play was a five-yard conversion to Stephen Anderson for a first down. Another pass play was a short, one-yard gain to receiver Brendan Bigelow who failed to move the sticks (the Bears would converted the fourth down anyway on the next play, and score a touchdown on the very next play after that). The other pass play was a failed pass attempt to Chris Harper on the right side for what looked like a busted reverse play.
Cal's run game may have had their best game of the year with a healthy Daniel Lasco (who finished with 71 yards on 12 carries) back, but the Bears still struggled on these third-and-short opportunities. Two runs came on third-and-one, while one rushing play came on third-and-two. A good football team converts each of these rushing plays with a more physical front. The Bears, however, are 1-8 with depth issues all along the offensive line. Cal's lone third-down rushing conversion came on a big, 14-yard run by Lasco up the middle on his first carry in the first quarter, with 7:25 to go. The Bears would wind up scoring a touchdown on that drive. The other two plays wound up being negative yards, as Muhammad was stopped short on third-and-two while Lasco was taken for a loss on third-and-one. The Bears would punt on the ensuing fourth down, further losing chances to continue drives and put up what could have been a game-deciding touchdown.
No team will ever find success if it consistently finds itself in third-and-long. The Bears learned this the hard way by converting only 2-of-10 attempts.
However, a good team will find ways to convert third-and-short situations. Cal certainly did not do well in this regard, and that wound up being one of several crucial reasons why the Bears fell just short again against Arizona. The progress on the field was apparent, with the offensive line allowing no sacks and keeping penalties at a minimum. The rushing game averaged five yards per carry behind that revamped offensive line and the return of Lasco, but the failed conversions show that this team just is not where they want to be as a team, yet.
With better health and continued progress learning the offense, those 3rd-and-short conversions will average itself out closer to 70% with larger sample sizes.
The issue, of course, is that the opportunities are dwindling, with only 3 games remaining for the 2013 season. Still, the last home game with an improving but depth-deprived USC team will at least provide the Bears with opportunities to convert.
BY THE NUMBERS: Down and Out
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