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WSU vs. Cal: Cougars' offense killing itself on early downs

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WSU's third down conversion rate is among the worst of the country, but that doesn't mean the Cougars are bad on third down.

Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

If WSU is going to have a good offensive day against a pretty good Cal defense, they need to convert third downs and move the chains. Unfortunately, the Cougars have been converting just 36 percent on third down this season, 92nd in the nation.

However, there is one metric that says WSU has been performing well on third down.

Bill Connelly over at Football Outsiders posted his Adjusted third down rates on Thursday. What that stat does is put every team's third down chances on an even playing field, and gives a conversion rate that is relative to other teams.

The Cougars' Adjusted third down rate through six games is 46 percent. That is 33rd in the country, so the Cougars are better than 91 teams in college football would be at converting the third downs WSU faces.

The reason for a stat like this should be obvious. Many of the teams that have high raw third down conversion rates put themselves in favorable distances. Those offenses are picking up good yardage on first and second downs to avoid obvious passing situations.

And that is where WSU's problem lies.

The offense is doing poorly on those first and second downs, evidenced by their 26 percent success rate and one other statistic: Leverage rate.

Leverage rate is the percentage of downs that a team is in a favorable position. That includes first downs, 2nd and 6 or less, and 3rd and 4 or less. WSU is in those positions 64 percent of the time, which is 114th in the country.

That means Washington State is one of the worst teams on first and second down, but better than most on third down. The Cougars are among the most impacted by their poor performance on early downs, as they are 59 spots higher in adjusted third down rate than raw third down rate. Only Maryland makes a bigger jump than that.

This is something that can get better. Mike Leach's Air Raid offense is designed to get those quick passes when they are available, and pick up five to ten yards at a time. The problem so far, as has been well documented, is that WSU is simply not making those shorter plays to sustain drives and get in manageable third downs.

Connor Halliday's adjustment to the offensive system will be key. He will get better and taking those quick routes, it is just a matter of time. When he does, the offense will explode and perform similar to what it did in the first half against an excellent Oregon defense.

This is a good third down offense, they just need to start helping themselves out on the earlier downs. When they do, Coug fans will finally see what they expected when Leach was hired.