Autozone Liberty Bowl Week | Third Down Will Make The Difference

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 15: Derek Wolfe #95 of the Cincinnati Bearcats tackles Dominique Brown #10 of the Louisville Cardinals during the game at Paul Brown Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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The Autozone Liberty Bowl is just 6 days from today. In lieu of a traditional preview each day this week I will be taking an in depth look at the match up between the Bearcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores in one particular phase of the game. First up, the all important third down.

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One of the biggest misconceptions about Football, even among those who watch frequently and are pretty well informed about the game, is what leads to winning and losing. One example that has always annoyed me is that winning teams don't commit penalties. While Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes would almost certainly stand and applaud that sentiment were they around the problem is that it is just sentiment. Penalties are essentially random and have no effect what so ever on winning a given game. You can throw out whatever stat you want passing yards, total offense, rush defense, red zone defense over the course of the year, and taking all teams into account the correlation for any one stat won't begin to approach 1. The two stats that come closest to that perfect correlation are turnover margin (obviously) and third down conversions (slightly less obviously). The obligatory turnover post will come later in the week. For now lets stick with the third down rates. Here is how the Bearcats and the Dores performed on third downs this season.

O Attempts O Conversions O Rate National Rank D Attempts D Conversions D Rate National Rank
Cincinnati 168 65 38.69 83rd 184 60 32.61 13th
Vanderbilt 166 57 34.34 105th 179 67 37.43 38th

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What we have in the Liberty Bowl is two offenses that struggle in not so much in third downs themselves, but in the two downs before that. Look at UC for a start. On the year the Bearcats faced 89 third and longs,* that is an average of basically 7 and a half per game, which is a lot, but the number is devoid of context.

* Third and Long in this instance means 3rd down and 7+ yards

To put it another way more than half of all third downs UC faced were 3rd and long, 53 per cent of them to be precise. That is suboptimal to say the least. One of the biggest reasons for this is the change in the Bearcats offense from a pass first offense to a more ground orientated attack. For the first time in 6 years the Bearcats have run the ball more than they passed it. Isaiah Pead is the biggest reason for that. When you have a weapon like that in the arsenal you want to use it again. and again. and again. But the yields on the rushing game are always lower than in the passing game. Simply shifting the play calling in favor of the run increases the likely hood of being put in third and long situations.

The other factor in this debate from the perspective of the Bearcats is the style of play. Not so much in terms of pace or spread sets, but the blocking schemes used. The Bearcats are a basic zone running team. There are a couple of specialized iterations of the blocking schemes, but the UC runs the inside or outside zone 80 per cent of the time, maybe more. The one thing that can destroy zone schemes is vertical penetration, and that is something that has plagued the offensive line all year, as the 77 tackles for loss allowed would indicate. But TFL's are part of the bargain with a zone scheme. Last years line surrendered 80 of them in just 12 games.

Vanderbilt has some of the same problems the UC offense had this year, for similar reasons. They too had a stud running back in the form of Zac Stacy. They too ran the ball way more than they passed it (59 per cent of all plays were runs) and they also favor a zone blocking scheme and had an offensive line that gave up a ton of negative plays (89 TFL and 26 sacks). Vanderbilt has the same problems its just that they are, if anything, more pronounced. Vandy has faced third and long situations 96 times in 2011,an average of 8 per game. For Vanderbilt this season 58 per cent of all third downs have been third and longs. Again, sub optimal.

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For all the problems these respective offenses have on third downs the defenses are generally excellent. Looking at the yardage totals Vanderbilt looks like the much better defense. They give up fewer yards in general, fewer passing yards for sure and are pretty damn good against the run to boot. The assumption would be that Vanderbilt would be better at getting off the field on third downs because across all phases they have a stronger defense. But as the chart above indicates that isn't really the case.

Vandy plays a very robust, very sound style of defense, but they are generally conservative. They blitz some, but they don't live or die by the blitz. Its just something they do. What they want more than anything is to force offenses to work the ball down the field slowly. Methodically. Painfully. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but the Dorres don't make an effort to put opposing offenses in difficult spots. There is no disruption to the offense, particularly from the defensive line as Vandy ranks 50th in Tackles for Loss and 54th in Sacks. Defensively they force third and longs on 94 occasions, or 53 per cent of third downs.

Contrast that approach to defense with the Bearcats. UC is one of the best teams in the country on third downs, allowing teams to convert just 32.61 per cent of the time. The reason for this is simple enough. UC scrapped the bend but don't break defense of last years in favor of a more blitzing attack orientated approach. The best unit on the team is the Defensive Line and Tim Banks and John Jancek decided early on that they would hitch their wagon to the D-Line. The weakness in the secondary is apparent to everyone. But the only way that teams can exploit that is if they can keep their QB upright. UC set out to make sure that would not happen. The results have been stunning. UC leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. That massive accumulation of negative plays is the biggest reason why a team with one of the worst pass defenses in the nation is converting 68 per cent of third downs. The Bearcats have forced 109 third and longs on the year. That's basically 60 per cent (59.2 if you really care about math) and that's really good. Obviously.

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In a game like this, where there is a lot of downtime between games and both squads are likely to be rusty the game will be determined on the margins. That means turnovers, and third downs. Neither offense is particularly adept at staying on schedule so this game will be determined in part by how well the defenses do at forcing the opposing offenses into unfavorable situations. For most of the year that has been the forte of this Cincinnati Bearcats defense. They attack teams relentlessly knowing full well that they will get caught some times, but the risk is worth the reward. I expect more of the same in Memphis because the Bearcats Defensive Line will once again be the best unit on the field for either team.

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