Revenge of the Thirds

Oct. 9, 2011

By Jon Cooper

– Third down is the put-up-or-shut-up play in an offensive series.

Through six games, Georgia Tech is putting up at a 54.8 conversion rate on third down (34-for-62). That’s better than anybody in the ACC and everybody in the nation except for Tennessee (60.3) and Wisconsin (55.2).

“Offensively, we have been pretty good on third down all year,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson, following Tech’s 21-16 victory over Maryland Saturday afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The Jackets’ ability to convert on third down over the first 33 minutes of the game, when they were 10-for-12, with two touchdowns, contributed to building up a 21-3 lead. The inability to convert consistently over the final 27, when they went 3-for-8, helped explain having to hold off Maryland in the final quarter.

Third down success shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise, considering their offense came into the game converting at 61.3 percent (38-for-62), while Maryland’ was last in the conference, allowing opponents to convert at 48.2 percent (27-for-56).

In the first half, the teams showed why they ranked where they did, as Tech had an answer on just about every third-down, regardless of the distance.

On their first drive, they made first downs on a pair of third-and-fours. First A-Back Orwin Smith took off 12 yards. Then quarterback Tevin Washington capped the eight-play, 63-yard drive, running for seven yards and a touchdown. On the next possession, Washington used his legs to go five yards on third-and-one, then his arm, converting a third-and-11, finding Stephen Hill cruising over the middle for a 16-yard gain.

On another second-quarter drive, Tech converted a pair of third-and-ones and a third-and-10 before an end-zone interception short-circuited the drive.

The Terrapins didn’t really stop Tech on third down as much Tech stopped itself. On both failed attempts in the second quarter the Jackets committed penalties that turned manageable plays into unmanageable and unconvertible ones.

In the second half, after the initial drive, where Washington turned a third-and-goal at the three into a touchdown, Tech was less successful, primarily because it found itself in less-comfortable situations.

On eight third downs following the half’s initial drive, Tech was 3-for-8, with only four of the plays requiring gains of five-or-fewer yards. Tech was 2-for-4 on those plays. Compare that to the first half, when the Jackets had eight third down plays of five yards or fewer and converted seven of them.

Some of the problem was penalties, as Tech committed eight on the game, with six coming on the offensive end, and two of those once lined up for, or on third down plays.

“It was just a crazy game,” Johnson said. “We had the ball five times in the first half, we scored two touchdowns, punted, missed a field goal and threw an interception in the end zone. We moved the ball pretty well in the first half. In the second half, we get the big kickoff return, we got it down there and put it in the end zone and then we just put it on cruise control. There was a penalty, a missed read, somebody loose, it was a fiasco. Third down in the second half was awful.”

While the team left room for improvement, its overall success on third down through the first half of the season is a definite positive.

They’re certainly doing a better job than last season’s team, which through six games converted only 39 percent on third down (32-for-82).

While being ahead of that team may not be considered a big deal, what might open some eyes is that they are ahead of the 2009 ACC Championship team. That group had a 52.4 percent success rate after six games.

It should be pointed out that team had to go through Clemson and visits to Miami and Florida State, but it also had a more experienced group on the field.

Georgia Tech can hold onto the first 30 minutes of Saturday and work to fix the final 30 as it prepares to embark on the second half of its season, which includes a rugged three-game stretch at Miami (Nov. 22), a home game against Clemson (Nov. 29), then 12 days off followed by a nationally televised Thursday-night home game against Virginia Tech (Nov. 10), which may decide the Coastal Division. Also out there are Georgia and a bowl game, which Tech hopes bookends, a return to the ACC Championship Game,

Those hopes likely will be tied to third down success and that may not be a bad thing.

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