The emotions have settled (a little) after a thrilling victory over UTSA which put North Texas at 3-0 in conference play. While North Texas was able to go up early in that game, they struggled to move the ball on offense, as UTSA controlled the ball for the next two quarters. To close the game, it felt like UTSA converted critical third downs.
UTSA was held to 4/14 (29%) conversions on third down but converted a couple in critical situations. The narrative during Littrell’s two seasons has been that the defense is not good on third downs, but very good on early downs. Let’s take a look how good – or not good – we have been.
Below is a snip from FootballStudyHall.com showing North Texas’ Passing Downs advanced stats. For reference, a passing down is a down that is greater than 2nd and 8*, 3rd and 5, or 4th and 5. (*We are so good at second downs, that it may be positively affecting these stats). Generally, we perform very well on offense in passing downs, and poorly on defense.
I’d like to address third downs right away. This was the weakest element of the North Texas defense last season. In fact, North Texas was second worst in conference play (49%), only insignificantly “better” than Florida Atlantic in 2016. Now in 2017, North Texas is solidly average, allowing 44% conversions on third down in conference (nearly tying FAU). This reflects our S&P+ rank of 112 in third down defense – a marginal improvement (so far) from last season’s ranking of 128.
Most first downs gained by opposing teams come through the air on third down. North Texas has allowed over 9 yards per pass attempt on third down, giving opposing QBs a rating of 147.2.
North Texas is a 3rd down defense away from being a consistent overall team. There is a glimmer of hope, however. The last two games, North Texas has allowed an impressive 31% conversion rate, compared to 58% in the prior three games. (I think Eric Jenkins may have something to do with it).
North Texas has allowed an impressive 31% conversion rate, compared to 58% in the prior three games
Ultimately, conversion percentages don’t mean squat if you don’t stop teams during critical moments. UTSA’s Dalton Sturm converted a 3rd and 17 on a drive that put UTSA up 26-22 late in the 4th quarter. Afterward, North Texas quietly forced a three-and-out before going on The Drive. Stop Sturm on the 3rd and 17, and you don’t worry about having to come up with The Drive.
It is nearly the same story on offense. In 2016, North Texas was marginally not the worst on third downs in the conference. Through three conference games, North Texas sits second for conversions. That is a great improvement, and a reason for having many long drives. North Texas had back-to-back games with over a 95-yard scoring drive. Additionally, this is reflected in time of possession, going from worst to nearly best this season. North Texas is ranked 23 in the nation for S&P+ on third down.
Improved play-calls and improved play mean improved conversion percentage on third downs. It also means avoiding third down situations. North Texas is second in the league in first downs gained, but near the bottom in third down attempts. North Texas just moves the ball.
Below are the standard downs advanced stats from Football Study Hall. What these stats say is that we generally do well on offense on standard downs, and we explode for points on successful plays (IsoPPP rank of 8 nationally). Frequently, Mason Fine has connected deep with Jalen Guyton for a score on first or second down, or Jeff Wilson has taken it to the house. On defense, North Texas does an excellent job attacking the offense and has the elite advanced stats to back it up.
On early downs, Troy Reffett uses his attack defense to disrupt plays by sending Jack LBs into the backfield, blitzing the wide LB through a gap, and occasionally a wide safety blitz. This attacking style has been successful on early downs, and is starting to make its way into third downs.
The attacking style is reflected by the 1st and 2nd Down S&P+ rankings for defense: 35th and 18th in the nation, respectively. Those are great numbers and are an improvement from 60th and 21st last year, respectively. North Texas likes to get after it early and often, and it keeps them off the field more than in previous seasons.
North Texas ranks 50th and 3rd, respectively, on 1st and 2nd Down S&P+. Compare that to 112 and 102 last season, respectively. Combined with these rankings, and the IsoPPP rank of 8, it begins to build a picture of this North Texas offense. It is an explosive offense that tests defenses with big plays on early downs. The difference from previous seasons is that it actually is executing these explosive plays, and with regularity.
Both the North Texas offense and defense have performed exceptionally on early downs. It is near elite in C-USA. What has hampered the team as a whole is third downs. It doesn’t do the team much good if it allows opponents to stay in the game by third down conversions after successful early down stops. Elite stats mean nothing if opponents end up scoring on 3rd down. The North Texas passing down defense 128th for points per play allowed on successful plays.
This is a young team. It is still a work in progress, and being able to identify weaknesses give North Texas an opportunity to address it.
Now we look forward to FAU and their rush game for a week 8 showdown in Boca Raton.