If there is one "play" that seems to have defined Gopher football over the past decade, in my mind, it has to be opponent's 3rd & long. Since the days of Glen Mason, Gopher football has seemingly always given up first downs after forcing the opponent's offense into a 3rd & long situation.
I'm not going to break down 10 years of 3rd down statistics, but suffice it to say that the Gophers have, for quite a long time, had difficulty getting the defense off the field in 3rd down situations. If you want to point to one stat that made winning difficult despite having some fantastic offenses during the Mason era, this is probably it.
From an "eyeball test" point of view, this season hasn't seemed much different.
In baseball, Billy Beane placed On Base % as a statistic above all other stats. You can't score runs unless you have runners on the bases.
3rd down efficiency is the On Base % of football. It's tough to score points if your offense can't stay on the field.
Can you get your defense off the field on 3rd down? Can you keep your offense on the field on 3rd down? 3rd down is the most important down in football. Like a team's ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, 3rd down efficiency is a stat that, to at least some extent, defines how good a football team is.
One of the best teams in the B1G, the Wisconsin Badgers, come to The Bank this Saturday. The Badgers are very good on 3rd down on both sides of the ball. On offense they convert 55% of the 3rd downs that they face, while allowing their opponent to convert just 37% of the time.
By the measure of 3rd down efficiency, like their W-L record, the Gophers are losing. The Gophers are converting roughly 2/3 of the 3rd downs they face as an offense (34%), while they are allowing their opponent's to convert 3rd downs nearly half of the time on defense (45%).
It's no surprise that the game in which the opponent had the best 3rd down efficiency against the Gopher defense was Michigan, a game that the Wolverines converted third downs at a 55% clip. Conversely, the Gopher offense had their worst game converting against Michigan as well... the Gophers did not convert a SINGLE 3rd down.
For the season, the Gophers have had a better 3rd down efficiency than their opponent just once: this past Saturday at Michigan State. Facing 15 third downs, the Gophers converted 7 times, 47%. This was also the game in which the Gopher defense had their best day stopping the opponent on 3rd down, allowing the Spartans to convert first downs just 4 times out of 13 tries (31%).
The Gopher football team has been horrible at times this season (see Michigan), and they have found ways to be competitive at others (see Michigan State). The Gophers had a very good opportunity to beat a very good team on Saturday, but were ultimately run down by a very physically talented Michigan State team. But the Gophers ability to stop the Spartans on 3rd down gave the Gopher offense more opportunities than they have had all season, and the Gopher offense took advantage by staying on the field after facing 3rd downs nearly half of the time.
If the Gophers hope to be competitive this Saturday against Wisconsin, they they hope to win more games this season, and if they hope to build a program that is competitive every single Saturday and for the division and conference crowns overall, they will have to become a team that wins the battle of 3rd down.
Last Saturday's tough showing against MSU is a start in the right direction.