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Clemson Football

The Secret to Clemson's Third Down Defense & Occam's razor

December 22, 2017
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The Clemson Tiger offense opened the ACC Championship Game with a 10 play, 68-yard drive that consumed 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  It was early, but given the defense that the Tigers possess, the Miami Hurricanes were in a tough spot despite the score being only 7-0 and more than 50 minutes remained in the game.  

It didn't help that Malik Rosier came up just short of a first down on their first series, but the Canes fortunes appeared to change when Ray Ray McCloud fumbled a Zach Feagles punt, the turnover chain came out, and Miami set up shop at the Clemson 37 with a fresh set of downs.

Four plays later the Miami faced a 3rd and six at the Clemson 22, securely within Michael Badgley’s field goal range. From that spot, Badgley would be looking at a 39-yard field goal, and he was money inside 40, a perfect 14 for 14 on the season. Three guaranteed points.

Berrios likely had visions of slipping past a blitzing Clemson defense and, with some luck, tie the score. If not, Badgley would cut into the lead and stem the Tigers early momentum. What could go wrong?

Mark Richt opted to attempt to gain a few more yards and perhaps even get a first down with a safe screen pass to Braxton Berrios. Berrios likely had visions of slipping past a blitzing Clemson defense and maybe, with some luck, tie the score. If not, certainly Badgley would cut into the lead and stem the Tigers early momentum.

What could go wrong?

Rosier took the snap (video above) and moved right drawing the Tiger defense, including Clelin Ferrell, in that direction. Meanwhile, Berrios, in the left slot and covered by Van Smith, played the part by taking a jab step forward before retreating. Smith immediately read the play but was forced to go around Trayvon Mullen who was engaged with a blocker.

Rosier turned to find Berrios, which alerted Ferrell to the screen and the pursuit was on. As Berrios was catching the ball Smith was literally sliding past a blocker forcing Berrios inside where he was pummeled by Ferrell and friends. Just like that, an almost automatic 39-yard field goal turned into a 46-yard miss.

A few minutes after Badgley’s miss Clemson took a 14-0 lead and for all intents and purpose, the game was over.

5th, 1st, 4th, 5th, 5th. That is Clemson’s national ranking in third-down defense over the last 5 seasons.

Ferrell was credited with a solo tackle, but Van Smith made the play.  If Smith doesn’t force the play inside, Berrios gets the first down and likely scores as the outside was wide open: Jamie Skalski had blitzed out of the play, Mullen was engaged and Ferrell was inside pursuing Rosier.

5th, 1st, 4th, 5th, 5th. That is Clemson’s national ranking in third-down defense over the last 5 seasons. On the NCAA Football Stats page, third-down defense stands alone, there are no ifs, ands or buts, no asterisks or footnotes.

Year Pct Rank
2017 27.8 5
2016 28.1 5
2015 27.7 4
2014 27.4 1
2013 30.8 5

Third down doesn’t stand on its own though, what happens on first and second down matters on third down.  It’s one of the laws of football - conversion rates for 3rd and 1 or 2 are going to be much higher than those for 3rd and 7 or 8. Give up 8 yards on first and second down, you’re likely to give up a first down, it's really not a difficult equation.

In the first 13 games of the 2017 season, 70% of the time the Tigers opponents are facing at least 5 yards to go on 3rd down. 

Number (%) Distance % 1st Down/TD
62 (30%) < 5 yards 48.4
143 (70%) ≥ 5 yards 18.9

Clemson's  third-down defense is so good because the first and second down defense is good. When opponents have less than 5 yards to go on third down first downs are gained at a 48.4% rate.  When 5 or more yards are needed, the success rate plummets to 18.9%. What happens on first and second down matters.

That's the "secret".  Forcing third and long is the key to a successful 3rd down defense and the average distance to go for Clemson opponents is 7.6 yards.

Avg Yards To Go Avg Yards To Go
All 3rd downs 7.6
Avg yards to go when converted 4.9
Avg yards to go on stops 8.7

It’s easy to get lost in talk of schemes and personnel groupings in an attempt to explain why a team is successful stopping opponents on third down. Sometimes that makes sense.  Sometimes though, perhaps a football version of Occam’s razor applies -  it’s more difficult to convert 3rd and 8 than 3rd and 4. 

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