BERKELEY -- As a football team matures, several key statistics can measure its maturation. The two most telling: Performance on third down and in the red zone. Last season, California was dead last in the conference in third-down conversion on offense (33.6%) and dead last in third-down defense (41.4% opponent success rate).
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This season, the Bears are third in third-down conversion on offense (45.9%) and ninth in third-down defense (40.0%). But, Cal has been very inconsistent of late, holding No. 25 UCLA to just 2-of-13 two weeks ago, only to allow No. 5 Oregon to go 10-for-17 on third down at Levi’s Stadium last week.
“Obviously, third down is a big deal for us,” head coach Sonny Dykes said on Thursday. “We’ve got to get off the field, defensively, on third down. We didn’t do as well against Oregon as we should have, particularly in third-and-long situations. We didn’t make as many third- and fourth-and-short yardage against Oregon as we needed to, and those are areas we’ve got to keep improving on.”
Over the first four games of the season, Cal allowed opponents to go 29-for-75 on third-down conversions (38.67%), against teams with offensive S&P ratings (measuring the efficiency of an offense as a whole) that averaged 66th in the nation. The past four games, as that rating has moved up to an average of 38.5, opponents have converted on 41.67% of third downs.
Likewise, the Bears’ conversion rate on third-downs offensively has changed as the opponents have. Against FBS opponents, Cal converted 24 of 47 third-down attempts (51.1%) against opponents with an average defensive S&P ranking of 60. Over the past four games, that conversion rate has dropped 39% against teams with an average defensive S&P rating of 49.25.
Cal’s offensive third-down performance has bottomed out over the last two games, as the Bears have gone a combined 11-for-30 on third downs.
“When you play against good defenses, you’re going to convert less third downs than you do when you don’t play against good defenses, and the same thing, a good offense is going to convert third downs on your defense when they’re good at what they do,” said Dykes.
Oregon State ranks 75th in the FBS in defensive S&P (the worst defense Cal has faced since Colorado, at 88th), and 73rd in offensive S&P (the worst since Washington, at 78th). What does that mean for the Bears? Likely, more of freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer.
Over the first four games of the season, Rubenzer came in on 31 snaps, 13 of which were on third down, and he converted seven of those 13 opportunities. In the second four games of the season, Rubenzer came in on only 19 snaps, two of those on third down, both of which he converted. Could we see more of Rubenzer on Saturday?
“I thought he played well. I thought he looked like he belonged there,” Dykes said of Rubenzer’s play against Oregon – his most action in the second third of the season. “I thought that was the thing that stood out for me, was that he just looked like he belonged. That’s a pretty good setting, against a good football team, and I thought he handled it well from an emotional standpoint, and thought he handled it well from a physical standpoint.
“He’s been very productive and as we’ve discussed, sometimes his role’s going to be big in some games, and smaller in others, and a lot of that just depends on who we’re playing, what the situations are, what their defense is like, how they play a running quarterback, and how does that fit with what we do. All of those are decisions we make early in the week, and he practices well all the time. The kid competes hard, is productive and we think he’s a good player.”
Oregon State just so happens to be the second-best team in the Pac-12 at defending third downs, holding opponents to a 31.6% conversion rate. The Beavers, though, have taken over for the Bears at the bottom of the conference in offensive third-down conversion (30.5%). Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin told BearTerritory this week that the effort against the Ducks was the best he’s seen this year out of the offense, but the one hole in that performance was third-down conversion rate, at 6-for-16. Could a more liberal use of Rubenzer against the hard-nosed Oregon State front be the answer? We’ll find out on Saturday.
• Cal will be without wide receiver Kenny Lawler (lower leg), wide receiver Trevor Davis (neck; Dykes hopes to have him back by USC), safety Avery Sebastian (quad) and defensive end Brennan Scarlett, who’s sprained knee is still bothering him. Dykes gave no clarification on if the Bears would have their best pass rusher back this season.
“I don’t know yet,” Dykes said. “We’ll make, at some point, we’ll have something.”
• Dykes opined that his team had a very strong week of practice, bolstered by the extra day off on Saturday.
“I thought we had a really good Tuesday. I thought we started the week off good,” Dykes said. “You could tell we had a little bit of rest on Saturday. We needed it. I thought we came back and had a really good start to the week, and I thought today was good. I think it’s been a good couple practices, and now, we’ve just got to go play.”
• Running back Khalfani Muhammad should see his role increase as the size of his hand cast decreases.
“That’s the plan, just trying to get the ball in his hands,” Dykes said. “That’s the biggest thing. As he continues to get better, I think we just hand him the ball and throw it to him out of the backfield and that kind of stuff.”