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The Key for Iowa in 2019 is 3rd Down Conversions...but it Starts on First

Iowa’s got all the makings for a special season, but an offense who can move the chains could take them from good to great.

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NCAA Football: Maryland at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are…on the eve of Iowa Hawkeyes football and plenty of reason to be optimistic. There’s a full stable of receivers. The defensive line lost four starters and is poised to be better. Nate Stanley’s in his third year. Phil Parker is involved.

But if there’s one thing I just can’t shake, it’s the Hawkeyes’ ability to convert third downs. In the 10 years since has tracked the stat, Iowa has topped out at 21st in the country at 46.2%:

Iowa’s third down conversion percentage (ranking in FBS)

Last year was actually the third best conversion percentage at 43.5% in the last 10 years but with a senior quarterback and a heavy emphasis in the offseason of the run game, one would expect Iowa to improve in this area. Unfortunately, 42 of Iowa’s 83 conversions came against Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Maryland when they converted third downs at a 52.5% clip (would rank 3rd). In the other eight games – including Iowa’s last six – their conversion rate was just 36.9% (90th).

So where do the Hawkeyes woes start? A dive into Sports Source Analytics (dating back to 2012) data highlights some of the issues Iowa has on 3rd. The last two years were the least often Iowa faced third and 3 or less yards. With 2016, they are the three highest rates of 3rd and 7+ yards Iowa has faced:

Third down yardage
Sports Source Analytics

Obviously, the yardage Iowa has to go on third down is not a “3rd down problem.” It’s a 1st and 2nd down problem. When looking at what the Hawkeyes are calling on first down, it’s clear they are not a “balanced” team like Kirk Ferentz claims to be. They are starkly run first, and the playcalling was more stark in the first quarter, especially last year.

First down playcalling
Sports Source Analytics

Iowa’s first down passing rate in the first quarter was 30%, the lowest of all available seasons. The lack of balance is even more frustrating when taking a look at Iowa’s likelihood of getting another first down. They’d move the chains 34% of the time with a pass (only 2015 was higher) and just 14% with a run. It was the starkest difference ability in the last seven years.

The Hawkeyes were also more likely to get a first down in a series after a first down pass than all years but 2015, 72% of series. A first down run resulted in moving the sticks just 63% of the time. Only 2012 and 2017 were worse.

Through another light, Iowa got their first downs at about an equal proportion on first, second, and third down. In comparing them with Wisconsin, a team they are often compared, the Badgers moved the chains nearly 45% of the time on SECOND down. That’ll happen when you’re averaging 7.2 yards/run on first.

Iowa first downs vs. Wisconsin
Sport Source Analytics

All of this is well and good but at the end of the day, Iowa is just going to have to get better at converting on third down, especially short. Despite lacking balance on first, Iowa was remarkably balanced on third and short. They passed 24 times to 18 rushes with the rushing being much more successful, converting 78% to 46%. You can thank Iowa’s fullbacks for that. Austin Kelly and Brady Ross were a perfect 7/7 on short yardage runs and Iowa’s troika of running backs went 9/14. (Nate Stanley & Henry Geil added another conversion each)

The problem is Iowa felt compelled to pass it so much in short yardage. After Iowa’s low-scoring domination of Maryland, Iowa passed 11 times in short yardage situations to just six runs.

In both plays, Iowa lines up in jumbo formations (one 22, one 13) and cannot come up on top. Perhaps it is oversimplifying, but when Iowa plays football in a phone booth, they become easier to defend.

It was a different result in 12:

In the above play, Iowa was able to set up in a formation which didn’t hint pass or run, nor did it hint direction. The result was a success as it led to the eventual game winning field goal.

Ultimately, Iowa is at a crossroads. They are on the precipice of greatness and should lean on the strengths of their third-year quarterback. While part of Iowa’s philosophy is to shorten the game by running the clock they shouldn’t be afraid to open up the playbook, especially on first down. By being more balanced early and often, it will make their make their playcalling less telling. It’s unlikely to result in an equivalent yard/carry average of Wisconsin, but it should bring it closer. Finally, when faced with predictable situations, make opponents plan for the unpredictable. Even if the playcall is a simple dive up the middle, it could mean the difference between a win and a frustrating march towards overtime.