Vilardo: SuperWest Teams and Third-Down Situations

An analysis of third downs as a whole, and situations that make them difficult to pick up

Posted on November 4, 2022

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

Last week in this space we looked at the running game and success rate on third and short, with the numbers broken out in a table at the end.

This week we will dig a little deeper into third downs as a whole and the situations that make them a little more difficult to pick up.

For reference as you read

3rd and short = 1-3 yards to gain 3rd and medium/short = 4-6 yards to gain
3rd and medium/long = 7-9 yads to gain 3rd and long = 10+ yards to gain.
(So, you could also describe these as: Short, manageable, not ideal, and long)


As you may recall, USC and Travis Dye individually, were among of the most successful teams and players in the nation converting third-and-short (1-3 yards to go) into first downs.

Needless to say, the Trojans are also one of the most successful teams on third down this season with a conversion rate of 54.74 percent on the season, which is the second-best rate in the nation trailing only Minnesota’s 59.80 percent.

If we dig deeper into the Trojans’ third downs we see that they are setting themselves up for success.

Of the 95 third downs USC has faced this season, 53 have been short to medium short (six yards or less) so they have kept things manageable on 55.8 percent of their third downs.

On those third down attempts, the Trojans have converted on 64.2 percent, the rate dips to 35.7 percent on 7+ yards to gain—which is not quite the dip you would think of. This is in large part to the play of Caleb Williams on third down.

While the Trojans are doing an excellent job of keeping themselves out of difficult conversion attempts, when they have faced a third and long, Caleb Williams completed 66.7 percent of his passes and 80 percent of his completions have gained a first down (eight of 10).


Williams has a QB rating of 208.11 on third and 10+ yards, second only to CJ Stroud of Ohio State.

The conversion rate of 80 percent is the highest nationally of any QB with at least 10 completions in a third and long situation.

In fact, among all QBs regardless of attempts, Williams’ mark is the second best, trailing only Cameron Rising of Utah who has a conversion rate of 83.3 percent on third and long but only has six completions on eleven pass attempts in that situation.

Again, we see a good team in Utah keeping themselves ahead of the sticks on third down. The Utes currently rank 19th in the nation on third down with a conversion rate of 49.0%.

On the season the Utes have only faced 17 third downs that they needed to gain 10+ yards on. Utah has needed to gain seven yards or less on 59 percent of third-down attempts this season.

Rising has picked up a Utah first down on 51.1 percent of his third-down attempts at any distance, the second-best mark in the nation to Ohio State’s Stroud.

Washington (5th) and UCLA (9th) join USC in ranking inside of the top 10 nationally in third-down conversions this season.

The Huskies are converting on 53.6 percent for the season. The breakdown of the conversions for Washington gets a little bit unconventional, however.

On third and short they are 33 of 45 for a 73.3 percent success rate with 25 conversions coming on the ground. The Huskies have only converted three rush attempts for a first down at any other distance, going 3-for-13 on those runs.

Washington is at 62 percent on third and medium/short. They are at 21.1 percent on third and medium/long, but they jump to 29.6 percent when needing 10+ yards for a first down.


Michael Penix Jr has completed 73.7 percent of his passes on third and long which is the ninth-best mark in the nation with 57.1 percent of those completions gaining a first down.

Penix has found Jalen McMillan for a first down four times this season on third and 10+ to go, tied for the fifth most conversions by a receiver on third and long.



One of the best QBs in the nation this season has been Dorian Thompson-Robinson and his third-down numbers certainly have done nothing to diminish that.

The Bruin senior is completing 72.5 percent of his passes on third down this season, the fourth most in the nation and among passers with at least 40 attempts on the down he is third nationally.

DTR has yet to throw an interception on any of his 51 third-down throws. UCLA as a team has converted on 51.0 percent of third down attempts.

The Bruins have converted at a rate of 55.1 percent on third and six or less to gain.

Jayden de Laura has nine first-down completions for Arizona on third and 10-plus, tied for the second most conversions in that situation in the nation.

de Laura

Obviously, nice to have success there, but ultimately not a stat you want to be good at. The simple fact is Arizona has not been ahead of the sticks enough.

The Wildcat QB has had 27 pass attempts in third and long and only completed 48.1 percent.

His nine first downs on 13 completions ranks him 15th nationally with a conversion rate of 69.2 on completions but it drops to a rate of 33.3 on pass attempts on third and long.

That ranks de Laura 27th in the nation, still a decent rank but it shows the importance of picking up yards on first and second down.

Tetairoa McMillan has been a big target on third down for de Laura with eight receptions gaining a first down on third down, tied for the fifth most in the country.

Arizona football Pac-12In fact, all eight of his receptions on third down this season have netted an Arizona first down, one of just 10 players in the nation with at least seven catches on third down and a 100 percent conversion rate on receptions.

On those third and long situations it is Jacob Cowing that is doing the work for the Wildcats, he has caught six passes on third and 10+ with four gaining a first down tied for the fourth most in the nation on the money down with distance to cover.

This season San Diego State conversely has converted just 28.4 percent of their third downs this season, ranking 124th in the nation.

On third and short runs they have not gotten the job done ranking 126th with a converting just five of fourteen.

So, when they have had third and short, they have not capitalized, but the real issue for the Aztecs is that they have snapped the ball 46 times this season on third down with 10+ yards to gain. 42.2 percent of their third downs have been 10+ yards to gain.

An additional 23 have been in the medium/long situation meaning 63.3 percent of the Aztecs third down attempts have required at least seven yards to pick up a first down. Not easy to be successful in those situations.

Colorado is also a team that has struggled on third down this season, the Buffs have converted just 32.7 percent this season ranking 112th in the nation.

Passing on third down the CU just 25.7 percent of pass attempts on third down into a new set of downs, 123rd in the country.

Their in-state rival Colorado State is even worse at 19.4 percent. New Mexico has the worst mark in that regard at 16.7.

The Rams are having all sorts of issues on third down obviously, but the most glaring is on third and short CSU has run for a total of minus 2 yards and on a total of 40 rush attempts on third down the Rams have totaled minus 11 yards on the ground. That is far less than ideal.

As a tandem, Jack Plummer and J. Michael Sturdivant have been a force on third down.

Plummer has thrown for 608 yards this season on third down, the 10th most in the nation and the first-year receiver has 253 receiving yards on third down, the third most in the nation.

Again, this is a double edge sword as the Bears have had the 16th-most pass attempts on third down this season, not an ideal situation.


Sturdivant’s 10 first downs on third down this season are the 10th most receptions to move the chains in the nation on third down.

In total the Bears are converting on just 34.8 percent of third downs this season, 102nd in the nation.

While they are seeing production from the pass game on third and long, the run game has been nonexistent on third down. Cal has run for a total of minus three yards 34 rush attempts on third down, 129th in the nation.

Stanford has converted on 40 percent of all third downs this season, again the Cardinal is having a challenging time staying ahead of the chains.

Despite the efforts of Tanner McKee, which could be said about so many things with the Stanford football team this season.

McKee has converted eight of 15 completions on third and long into first downs. Stanford, however, is struggling a bit on third and short, they are just 27-of-57 on third down and 6 or less to gain, 47.3 percent.

Washington State is another team in our area struggling on third downs this season ranking 93rd in the nation with a conversion rate of 32.6 percent.

The Cougars have been better on the money down in Pullman than on the road, but still not great at home. They have converted on 41.6 percent in home games and just 29.3 percent.

WSU is averaging just 1.33 yards per carry on 45 rush attempts on third down, which ranks 117th in the nation.

Coaches will talk about staying on schedule, and you can certainly see how the numbers play out when you see the success rate of teams that stay ahead of the chains on third down.

Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenVilardo and his organization @SERCenter.

Visit his website at

—More from Stephen Vilardo—