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October 4, 2013

Inside the numbers

The Iowa offense debuted in unimpressive fashion this year, converting just 7 of 17 third downs and committing three turnovers in a 30-27 loss to Northern Illinois.

But the unit has been trending upward ever since. A strong ability to convert third downs has been one of the biggest reasons why.

The Hawkeyes are converting 52.5 percent of their third-down opportunities, the FBS' 13th-best rate and the second best in the Big Ten.

I'm sure you already understand how important third-down success is. If there's any doubt Stanford, Louisville, Texas A&M, LSU, UCLA, Miami and Baylor - all ranked among the AP Top 17 - all rank in the national top 10 for third-down percentage.

Overall, Iowa's 42 conversions lead the conference and are the third-most in the country, though not all teams have played five games to this point.

Let's take a look at Iowa's third-down success throughout the Kirk Ferentz era.

Below is a year-by-year table with third-down percentage, what that percentage ranked among Big Ten teams, and Iowa's record, with its Big Ten finish in parentheses. Finishes from 2011 and 2012 indicate the team's final finish in the Legends Division. The final column indicates where that year's third-down conversion percentage ranked among the other seasons listed here.

The bottom row illustrates Iowa's cumulative third-down conversion rate since 1999 and where it ranks in the Big Ten over that time-frame.

The trends here are, admittedly, a little spotty here.

While there have been good seasons despite mediocre or poor conversion rates (see: 2009, 2004, 2003), very rarely do we see the opposite - poor seasons with good conversion rates. However, 2000 and 2006 come close to fitting that profile as well.

It seems a team that is otherwise solid or better in most aspects of the game can compensate for poor third-down efficiency (2009 seems to be a prime example). Meanwhile, a poor third-down rate is generally a stake through the heart of a generally poor team.

I also found these numbers interesting:

104 Ferentz victories (including bowls): 44.1 percent conversion rate

75 Ferentz losses (including bowls): 34.2 percent

Third-down failures tell us a lot about why Iowa struggled last year. The Hawkeyes didn't have the same level of talent to compensate for a similarly poor level as they did in a year like 2003 or 2009, and thus suffered the consequences.

Iowa converted only 31.9 percent of its third downs in eight losses last year. The 36.4 percentage in all 12 games was barely higher than the 34.2 figure above - the average conversion rate for all defeats under Ferentz.

The Hawkeyes converted just 64 first downs last season, the Big Ten's second-lowest number. The team's 36.4 percent success rate trailed the likes of Indiana and Purdue, recording only 17.4 first downs per game.

This year, Ferentz's squad is racking up 22.8 first downs per game and its success rate is not only one of the best in the conference, but one of the nation's best.

Why? Two words: Jake Rudock.

This is not a referendum on James Vandenberg's shortcomings so much as it is a matter of giving Rudock credit. There are obviously many other variables in play here - the offensive line, play calling, the comfort level of personnel within an offense in the second year of a new offensive coordinator compared to the first year and other factors.

But it's clear as day that Rudock is the biggest difference, especially when comparing his third-down numbers to those of Vandenberg over the last couple of years.

This numbers indicate that Rudock is simply a more efficient and dynamic player in third-down situations. Of course, Vandenberg's numbers come from a much larger sample size, but there are still significant differences here to notice.

Completion percentage: Rudock's third-down completion percentage of 59.2 is actually superior to Vandenberg's overall completion percentages from both 2011 (58.7) and 2012 (57.3). This is maybe the most telling difference with the least amount of variance.

Sacks: Rudock has attempted nearly half as many third-down passes as Vandenberg did in 2012 as well as 2011, respectively, but has been sacked at a much lower frequency. I think we can objectively say Rudock is a little more comfortable hanging in the pocket longer than Vandenberg, yet he also proves to be more elusive to would-be tacklers in the backfield. To be fair, one can make the argument that Rudock is also being protected by a better offensive line.

Rushing: This is where Rudock really presents a different dynamic, particularly on third downs that are often obvious passing situations. Vandenberg was never a threat with his legs, but Rudock has already proven to be an effective runner with a nose for the end zone. This gives opposing defenses a completely new problem to worry about and account for.

Still, these numbers should be dissected and consumed responsibly. Iowa hasn't played its toughest competition yet. It would be foolish to assume Ferentz's club can continue to convert more than 50 percent of its third downs. Rudock's numbers will probably not remain quite as impressive either.

Nonetheless, both the team's efficiency as a unit as well as Rudock's individual excellence on third downs are encouraging signs. Michigan State will provide a serious test Saturday, however, as the Spartans allow opponents to convert just 21.0 percent of their third-down chances - the FBS' third-lowest mark.



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