Arizona’s 28-14 win over Texas Tech in its last game featured several tremendous performances by its defense, overshadowing an offensive effort that was just as important to the victory.
In particular, how the Wildcats performed on third down didn’t get nearly enough attention.
The Wildcats converted on 15 of 21 third downs, their most conversions since 1992 and their best rate since October 2017 when they were 7 of 9 against Oregon State. For the season, Arizona is making it on third down 58.7 percent of the time, which is tops in the Pac-12 and third-best in FBS.
Arizona went 9 of 14 on third down against NAU, while in the opener at Hawaii it was successful on just 3 of 11 third downs.
“Against Hawaii we had a lot of third and longs,” coach Kevin Sumlin said. “(Against Texas Tech) there were some third and five, four, five, six. You have to be able at different times to be successful, to stay out of third and long.”
Of Arizona’s 21 third down plays against Texas Tech, 14 required it to gain six or fewer yards to get the first down. The Wildcats converted 13 of those, the only failure coming on the first drive of the game when Khalil Tate threw an incompletion on 3rd and 3.
“We just can’t have too many third and longs,” tight end Bryce Wolma said. “Third and about seven or less is manageable. Our Wednesday practices are really focused on third downs.”
This season, Arizona has faced 3rd and 6 or better 24 times and converted 20 of those. It is 7 for 22 on third and 7 or more.
Much of Arizona’s success on third downs can be attributed to its run game, which is averaging 307.7 yards per game and 6.64 yards per carry. The per-carry average is sixth in FBS, and of the five teams who are gaining more per rush—Oklahoma, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia, Baylor and Toledo—four are among the top 43 nationally on third down.
More success on third down could be in store in the Pac-12 opener against UCLA, which is seventh-worst in FBS in allowing conversions 48 percent of the time.