THIRD DOWNA couple of months ago we took a look at Cal's play-calling in 2nd down and short situations. As expected, the data supported the notion that the Bears were pretty conservative and not very successful in these situations, leading to a fair number of 3rd and shorts over the course of the season. So, how did the Bears perform in those all-important third down situations?
As mentioned earlier, Brian from MGoBlog has a nifty chart that captures Cal's third down performance (and charts for every other D-1A program). Here's Cal's 3rd down efficiency in 2006:
The Y axis measures the completion %; the X axis measures the # of yards to go. The descending heavy black line is the average completion % for D-1A teams - if your team is above average at a given distance, you'll see green; below average and you'll appropriately see red.
As you can see, Cal was slightly below average in 3rd and less than five yards to go. Conversely, the Bears were far above average in 3rd and more than 7 yards to go (and slightly above average in 3rd and 5 and 3rd and 6 situations).
How often did Cal face such situations?
The most frequent down and distance was 3rd and ten (14% of all third downs). As the above graph indicates, Cal did pretty well in these situations, but their completion percentage was still below 40%. Also a fair number of 3rd and threes, and we know that Cal was relatively inefficient in such situations.
For those of us who watched Cal's 2006 season, these graphs are not very surprising. The Golden Bears were an efficient offense who occasionally struggled in short-yardage situations. While many fans justifiably blame Ted/Bar for unimaginative play calling on second and short, the third and short frustrations are due to inconsistent OL play. Just for fun I went back and looked at some TIVO of the '06 season, and what I saw confirmed my view. While Marshawn occasionally danced when he should have darted, the vast majority of unsuccessful third and shorts were due to our OL's inability to generate a push up front. I won't name names, but there are certain returners on the OL who simply struggled when they were forced to go mano a mano with down linemen without any help from linemates. Failing improvement in this area, the Bears may ask Nate to throw slants and tight end pops to convert on third down in 2007.
Now let's look at a graph of a team that gets it done in short yardage:
That's USC's graph for 2006, and that's a big reason they won the Pac-10 despite an offense that lacked the big-play firepower of years past. More on this later in the week.