Here’s a number that should keep Frank Beamer, Scot Loeffler and the rest of Virginia Tech’s offense awake at night: In 2013, the Hokies’ ground game converted just 37 percent of its third-and-short attempts for first downs.
Let that sink in for a minute. On third-down plays in which Virginia Tech needed just 3 yards or fewer for a conversion, roughly one in three rushes resulted in a first down. That’s bad. That’s very bad.
How bad, you ask? No other team in the country converted less than 40 percent. Only 17 teams (out of 125) nationally converted less than 50 percent. The national average was 62 percent, almost twice the rate Virginia Tech found success. The two teams that played for a national championship last season converted 76 percent of their third-and-short runs.
And that explains a lot of Virginia Tech’s offensive struggles the past two seasons. Sustaining drives is tough when third-and-short plays turn into fourth-and-short plays. But the Hokies’ third-down woes don’t end with just the short-yardage runs.
Last year, a quarter of Virginia Tech’s drives ended with a three-and-out. Overall, the Hokies converted just 32 percent of their third-down tries, good for 113th nationally. Seven AQ-conference schools finished with lower conversion rates than Virginia Tech in 2013, and their combined record was 23-62. (It should be further credit to Tech’s defense that the Hokies overcame their third-down struggles to finish 8-5.)
Moreover, Tech’s third-down woes were sort of like the old Woody Allen joke about the awful food that comes in such small portions. Yes, the Hokies were bad on third-and-short, but they also struggled just to get into those supposedly manageable third-down situations.
For the season, just 23 percent of Virginia Tech’s third-down tries were short-yardage attempts (good for 110th nationally), and 55 percent of its third-down tries required 10 yards or more for a conversion (compared to a national average of 47 percent).
There are myriad reasons for this, of course, but it starts with the offensive line.
The third-and-short struggles seem perplexing, given that Virginia Tech had a big, bruising quarterback who, in theory, should have been a natural at running up the gut to pick up a first down. Instead, senior Logan Thomas was a woeful 4-of-12 on third-and-short runs last year.
And for a team that has run the ball 54 percent of the time the past two seasons, the Hokies shouldn’t be in third-and-long situations so routinely. But there, too, the offensive line offers some insight. Of Virginia Tech’s 493 running plays last year, 132 of them (the second most in the ACC) resulted in a loss or no gain, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Virginia Tech’s 3.7 yards per rush on first down last season ranked 111th nationally. Bad first-down plays tend to turn into troublesome third-down situations.
If the line can’t get a push at the point of attack, short-yardage scenarios will be a problem and first-down runs will implode into second-and-long and third-and-long scenarios. But there’s hope.
While much has been made of Tech’s inconsistent group of receivers and the loss of the equally inconsistent Thomas, the struggles on third down don’t require an overhaul. It’s simply a matter of getting better at the point of attack, picking up 1 or 2 more yards in key situations and getting better physically -- even if the overall talent level remains unchanged. (To that point: UMass, one of the worst offensive teams in the country, converted 76 percent of its third-and-short runs last year.)
Do that and suddenly those three-and-outs begin to disappear, drives are sustained and a few more points find their way onto the scoreboard. Virginia Tech had five losses by seven points or fewer in the past two seasons, and with a bit more third-down success, those all could have gone the other way.