IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s ability to extend drives in 2015 was among the many factors why it won 12 regular-season games.
The Hawkeyes’ inability to convert third downs is a primary reason they are 3-2 in 2016.
Iowa ranked fourth in Big Ten third-down percentage last year at 41.7 percent. Now, five games overall and just two games into Big Ten play, it’s 10th at 37.2 percent. Based on the team’s third-down predictability, it’s fairly obvious why.
Like most teams, Iowa uses three-wide receiver grouping on third down. In fact, 49 of Iowa’s 57 third-down plays with quarterback C.J. Beathard at the helm are in 11 personnel, the universal football alignment that includes one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers.
Third down is a passing down so having 86 percent of its third-down plays in a three-receiver set is not unusual for Iowa. But the predictability of run-pass ratio from that grouping is off the charts.
Here’s a breakdown:
|3-WR sets on 3rd down||Run||Pass|
Based on this data, every time Iowa lines up in the shotgun on third down with three wide receivers on the field, it attempts to pass. Every time except one when the Hawkeyes lined up under center on third down with three wide receivers, they ran. Coincidentally, the only third-down pass from a three-receiver grouping under center resulted in a 9-yard touchdown pass from Beathard to tight end George Kittle.
“As you might imagine, we go through scouting reports, both self-scout and then also our opponents,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And I think if you would check most of the opponents we play, it’s pretty consistent the same way. When teams are third-and-5, third-and-6, third-and-7, it’s not unusual for them to throw a heck of a lot more than they run, and then, same thing, throwing the ball out of the gun. That’s pretty commonplace. So I don’t think that’s a big tipping point or big secret.”
Iowa’s third-down results are mixed. Beathard has completed 18 of 30 pass attempts for 181 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also scrambled three times for 17 yards. But, counting a bad snap, Iowa has given up 11 sacks. For a team struggling to protect its quarterback, every fourth drop-back on third down results in a sack.
“I feel like any team, when you’re third-and-long, you’re most likely going to be throwing the ball,” Beathard said. “It’s not hard to tell. We know that teams know that we’re going to be throwing the ball on third-and-long situations. But we just expect our guys to protect better and me to get the ball out quicker and receivers to get open.”
But defining third-and-long is ambiguous. In third-and-short (one or two yards to go), Iowa has run on eight of its nine plays. Seven of those nine plays featured only two wide receivers. The only third-down run from a three-receiver set originally was called for 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) but was changed after a timeout.
Where Iowa has failed on third down is when it has options to run or pass. Here’s the play breakdown:
From third-and-3 to third-and-6, Iowa attempted to pass 17 times and ran only twice. Beathard completed 7 of 11 passes for 62 yards and an interception. Four passes resulted in first downs. Beathard scrambled twice for 16 yards, both for first downs. But he also was sacked five times, counting the bad snap. Nearly 34 percent of Iowa’s sacks this season have come on third down and the distance ranging between three and six yards.
Of Iowa’s two called runs on third down and three-to-six yards, one was in a three-receiver set and generated seven yards. One was from a two-tight end grouping and gained one yard.
Of Iowa’s 57 third-down plays, 49 are in three-receiver sets
- 43 plays are in the shotgun, and Iowa attempted to pass each time
- Iowa ran five times from a three-receiver grouping, and each time Beathard stood under center
- Iowa attempted to pass once from this grouping while Beathard was under center, which resulted in a touchdown
- All eight third-down plays in a different personnel grouping were running plays
- Beathard was under center for all 13 rushing attempts