Johnny Football on 3rd Down

ESPN has a very good article up entitled “Examining the value of Manziel’s Scrambles” which highlights some rather amazing statistics related to last year’s Heisman winner:

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Manziel was the best in the country at converting third downs via the pass, doing so 51.6 percent of the time (the FBS average was 37.3 percent). Of course, his scrambling ability was also critical on third down as he ran for 28 first downs, 19 of which came with 5 yards or more to go. That also was best in the country, as no other quarterback had more than 12 first-down runs on third-and-5 or longer.  [Emphasis added]

That scrambling ability accounted for a 857 rushing yards, 60.7 percent of his season total. If you combined the rushing yards on scrambles of Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller from 2012, it still comes up 30 yards short of Manziel alone. Fifteen of his scrambles gained at least 20 yards, which was also the best in the SEC.

You can say what you want about Manziel’s off-the-field antics, but when he’s on the field you can’t get him off of the field.

Earlier this week, we discussed how to defend the hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) offense.  While some would point to faking injuries and hybrid players as the answer, I contributed this:

Once your just playing football, defending the HUNH is no different that defending any other offense:  control the line of scrimmage and get the offense off the field as quickly as you can.

It’s not just running the HUNH that creates havoc and it’s not just the pace of the offense.  The killer – the thing that multiplies the effectiveness of the HUNH – is being able to convert on third down.

For some perspective, let’s review the top third down converting teams in the SEC over the last few years:

2012 – Texas A&M – 54.87%

2011 – Alabama – 46.43%

2010 – Auburn – 53.09%

2009 – Florida – 49.15%

2008 – Florida – 51.55%

These teams, obviously,  have several things in common: three national championships (2011, 2010, and 2008), three Heisman winners (Manziel, 2012; Cam Newton, 2010; and Tim Tebow, 2009 and 2008, though he won the trophy in 2007) and four of the teams played in the that year’s SEC championship game.

Though only two of these teams ran a version of the HUNH (A&M and Auburn), there’s one enduring memory from all of them:  you couldn’t get them off of the field.  Third and four for Tebow was a given – from anywhere on the field.  Ditto for Newton.  And having Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy in the same backfield wasn’t a lot easier to defend, either.

Manziel’s team didn’t win or play for a championship, but they were awfully close.  A couple of turnovers late in the first half against LSU spelled doom, but a loss to Florida in the first game of the year ultimately kept them out of the SEC title game.  And this was all because of Manziel and his offense’s ability to convert on third down.

So as we head into the 2013 season, keep your eye on third downs.  The SEC team converting at the best clip may be playing in Pasadena on January 6, 2014.