Maybe this season would be going a little better for the Arizona Wildcats if they played in the Canadian Football League. That’s because third downs up north are usually reserved for punting, not making or breaking a drive, and there are no fourth downs to worry about.
Among the many things that went wrong for Arizona in Friday’s 42-10 loss at Utah was its play on third down, both on offense and defense. The Wildcats were just 7 of 23 on third or fourth down while the Utes converted 5 of 13 third downs and were a perfect 3 of 3 on fourth down.
Two of those fourth-down conversions were for touchdowns, the other was a fake punt that gained 28 yards.
This has been a season-long problem for Arizona (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) and a big reason why such a promising season back in August is on the cusp of being a lost one.
The Wildcats allow opponents to convert 43.4 percent of their third downs, which ranks 107th out of 130 FBS teams. Their 68.4 percent fourth-down defense ranks 114th.
On offense, Arizona is 79th with a 38 percent third-down conversion rate and is 8 of 15 (53.3 percent) on fourth down to rank 65th.
The 49 third-down conversions allowed and 113 third-down plays defended are the eighth- and seventh-most, respectively in the country. Both were the most in FBS prior to Saturday’s games.
Though the lack of success on third down is a common trait for Arizona’s offense and defense, the way this has come about is much different. On offense, the inability to move the sticks on third down comes down to play calling while on defense it’s come down to poor execution.
For whatever reason, Arizona is often running on third or fourth down when it should pass and vice versa. A good example came against Utah when the Wildcats ran the ball on 3rd and 11 on one possession and the next time they had the ball threw a deep (incomplete) pass on 4th and 2.
Of Arizona’s 102 third down plays on offense, one-third (34) have been runs. But half of those runs have come on 3rd and 4 or more, which isn’t ideal for a team averaging just 4.67 yards per carry. The Wildcats are just 1 of 7 when needing 4 to 6 yards, 1 for 10 when needing 7-plus.
When needing three yards or less, Arizona has run 17 times (including sacks) and thrown seven times. In these situations the Wildcats have converted 52.9 percent of the time on the ground but just 42.6 percent through the air.
For comparison, Oregon—which leads the Pac-12 in third-down offense at 51.7 percent—is 14 of 23 (60.8 percent) on third-and-short runs and 62.5 percent (5 of 8) on third-and-short pass plays.
Though no team would actually do this, the numbers indicate that if Arizona’s opponents opted to spike the ball on first and second down it wouldn’t really hurt their chances to get a first down. That’s because the Wildcats have been much better on those earlier downs compared to the late ones.
And it’s not even close.
Arizona, which allows 4.59 yards per rush overall, is holding teams to 4.32 yards on first down carries. On second down it gives up only 3.85 yards per run.
But on third or fourth down opponents are averaging 6.05 yards per carry, resulting in 29 first downs (on 67 tries) including 12 of 18 on fourth down.
The Wildcats have allowed runs of 20-plus yards five times on third or fourth down.
Defending the pass has been just as bad. Arizona allows 7.3 yards per pass attempt and a 64.3 percent completion rate overall, though on first/second down those numbers 6.4 and 61.1, respectively.
On third and fourth down? Arizona is giving up 9.4 yards per attempt on 75 percent passing, with 22 of the 30 conversions they’ve allowed via the pass have come on third and 7-plus.
There are a lot of things that factor into Arizona’s poor play on defense but the main one appears to be tackling. Against Utah there were numerous plays where the Wildcats were in position to make a stop, often behind the line of scrimmage, only to allow a conversion because of a missed tackle.