Every down in a college football game is important, but that does not mean they are weighted equally. First- and second-down success can make or break an offense, but most of that is only with regard to how well it sets up down No. 3.
Unlike first and second down, third down is supremely important unto itself. It decides whether the drive will continue with a clean, safe first down, or whether the offense will have to punt, kick a field goal or risk screwing over its defense by going for it on fourth down.
Accordingly, players who thrive on third down hold added value over players who might not. Their ability to keep the chains moving with so much at stake can alter the course of a drive, a game or a season.
So, looking back on last year's numbers, but also accounting for some film study, measurables and context, let's take a look at some of the best third-down weapons in the country for 2014.
Their defenses are lucky to have them.
Short-Yardage Quarterback: Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
Before tearing his ACL and MCL against BYU last season, Chuckie Keeton was almost unfair in his 3rd-and-short efficiency.
The sample was small—only 24 total pass attempts—but he had a 203.9 passer rating on 3rd-and-3-or-less and a 203.0 passer rating on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6. He completed 22 of those 24 passes, and even though none went for 20 yards, 18 went for first downs.
Keeton also picked up three first downs on eight attempts with his legs, which is an underrated but important part of short-yardage quarterbacking. Here he is on the first drive of Utah State's season last year, picking up an important 3rd-and-3 against rival Utah:
Keeton was even better at this in his last full season, 2012, when he took seven of 12 rushing attempts on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6 for a first down. Breaking contain to keep the drive alive on these types of plays is about the most crippling thing one can do to a defense.
Here Keeton is doing precisely that against Southern Utah:
Really, though, it's the combination of throwing and passing that makes Keeton so good. Others such as BYU's Taysom Hill, for example, do a better job converting 3rd-and-shorts on the ground, but Keeton uses his legs equally well in both facets of the position.
Here's a good example from last year's USC game. The Trojans had a top-five defense in the country, per Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, and finished first in red-zone defense with just 27 scores allowed on 43 possessions. A high percentage of those scores were touchdowns, but even their 51.16 percent TD rate was top-15 nationally.
Here, leading by seven points in the second quarter, they've forced Utah State into a 3rd-and-1 at the 10-yard line. An unbalanced rush provides pressure from the blind side, but Keeton feels it coming and extends the play to his right. As he rolls, receiver Travis Reynolds moves in the opposite direction, finds a hole in the zone, reels in Keeton's pass and darts forward for a game-tying touchdown:
Keeton might never be able to run the same 40-yard-dash time after his horrific knee injury, but he won't necessarily have to. Top-end speed helped him, but it was never his most important skill.
The thing Keeton does best is keep his eyes down the field when he's moving, even if he's moving in a fast jog instead of a slow sprint.
And on that front, he should be fine.
"We’re trying to be smart about this," Keeton told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer in early May. "But I feel good about my knee and the doctors feel really good about where we are right now."
Tennessee better be ready when the Aggies come to visit August 31.
Long-Yardage Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Jameis Winston did a lot of things well last season.
He excelled in almost every scenario, leading the nation with an overall quarterback rating of 184.85 that was more than 10 points higher than the second-place finisher, Bryce Petty (174.29).
Nowhere did he excel more, however, than on long third downs, where his numbers were so good that they almost had to be an outlier. But 24 pass attempts on 3rd-and-10-or-longer is not that small of a sample, which gives reason to believe that they weren't.
On those 24 attempts, Winston completed 17 passes for 346 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions (QB rating: 246.93). Crazier still, 16 of those 17 completions went for a first down. If you somehow managed to throw Florida State's offense off schedule and force it into a 3rd-and-10-or-longer, but then you allowed Winston to get a pass off, the Seminoles converted 67 percent of the time.
Sixty-seven percent of the time!
Let's look at a few examples from FSU's signature performance of the season, a 51-14 romp over Clemson at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers defense was actually quite good in 2013, ranking No. 13 in the overall F/+ defensive ratings. It was especially efficient on third downs, too, allowing the opponent to convert just 30.8 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.
But Winston and the Seminoles shredded Clemson with a series of long third downs at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter that iced the game away with almost 30 minutes left.
Here's Winston breaking the pocket and throwing against his body to find Rashad Greene for 13 yards on 3rd-and-9:
Later in the same drive, Winston stands in against pressure, takes a hit and lofts a 19-yard completion to Kenny Shaw on 3rd-and-10:
Clemson forced Florida State into a field goal on that drive and appeared to come out with energy when the Seminoles got the ball to start the second half. After being forced into a 3rd-and-12, however, Winston deflated that energy by calmly reading the defense and delivering a 27-yard strike to Kelvin Benjamin:
Then, as a coup de grace, Winston dumped a screen to Greene on 3rd-and-10 from the 17-yard line for a kill-shot touchdown:
Short-Yardage Running Back: Malcolm Brown, Texas
For the sake of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that most of the best 3rd-and-short running backs in college football last year are gone. Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Auburn's Tre Mason and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs all would have made the cut over our 2014 choice, Texas' Malcolm Brown.
Still, it wouldn't be crazy for Brown to surpass those players' production this season. Despite barely touching the ball behind Johnathan Gray at the start of 2013, Brown came on late and finished with 20-plus carries in seven of his final eight games.
On the whole last season, Brown had 20 carries on 3rd-and-3-or-less and converted 14 of them into first downs. He also took his one reception under those parameters for a 74-yard touchdown.
More importantly, Brown did all this behind a poor first-surge offensive line. Despite Brown's efficient conversion numbers, the Longhorns group of blockers finished No. 95 in power success rate, a metric computed at Football Study Hall that measures how well a line fares in short-yardage rushing situations.
Here is how Brown's numbers stack up with Gray's:
|1-3-Yard Output||1-3-Yard Average||1-3-Yard First Downs|
|Malcolm Brown||20 car - 63 yds||3.15 YPC||14|
|Johnathan Gray||10 car - 14 yds||1.40 YPC||3|
Texas' offensive line was good on the whole last season, so it's not like Brown was doing everything on his own in short-yardage situations. But it also wasn't like his numbers got inflated by a dominant unit up front (something that could probably have been said about Mason).
Brown used good vision and his 6'0", 228-pound frame to bowl up the middle even when the defense knew he was coming. Here he is fighting for extra yards on the first possession of the Oklahoma game last year, converting on 3rd-and-2 to help set up a field goal:
Later in the game, Brown kept another drive moving with a patient cutback and strong burst on a 3rd-and-1 in Texas territory:
Texas connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass three plays later, extending its lead to 24-10 before eventually blowing out the rival Sooners in what amounted to the highlight of its season.
Brown had nine carries on downs with six yards or less to go, and he converted eight of them for first downs. The one time he didn't, which came on a meaningless 2nd-and-4 as Texas salted away the game, he followed it up with a two-yard gain on 3rd-and-1.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Brown was a 5-star recruit back in the day. His power has been well-documented since high school.
Long-Yardage Running Back: Kevin Parks, Virginia
Kevin Parks is one of the hidden gems in college football, an undersized (5'8") but talented player who is stuck on a cruddy team. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder was early on the Parks bandwagon, ranking him a top-150 player in the country before his sophomore year in 2012, and Parks has only gotten better since then.
Some expected blue-chip freshman Taquan Mizzell to cut into Parks' workload in 2013, but Parks responded to the challenge and had the best season of his career (despite the 2-10 tire-fire slowly igniting around him). Especially on third downs—both short and long—he was often the best thing Virginia's offense had going for it.
Parks did well rushing the ball on 3rd-and-3-or-less, converting 14 of his 22 carries for first downs, but he was even more valuable as a pass-catcher on 3rd-and-long. He took nine receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-more for a total of four first-down conversions, highlighted by a trio of 15-plus-yard gains on 3rd-and-10-or-longer.
He's got a flair for the dramatic, too. Here Parks is on a 3rd-and-7 against Duke, balancing a checkdown pass against his hamstring while he's running, then flipping into the end zone through four defenders for a 13-yard touchdown:
As a pass-blocker, Parks faces the obvious deficiencies of any 5'8" player but has gotten better each season. Now entering his senior year, he can be counted on to protect the QB on third down.
According to Jamie Oakes of 247Sports, Parks said "he takes great pride in his blocking ability and not letting his quarterbacks get killed" during a moderated panel at ACC media days.
Suffice it to say that's the right attitude for a third-down back.
Suffice it to say Parks is a great one.
Short-Yardage Receiver: Tommy Shuler, Marshall
Tommy Shuler was a menace in the slot last season and might be the best short and intermediate receiving weapon in the country.
Standing only 5'7", he has quick feet, an advanced route tree and a preternatural rapport with quarterback Rakeem Cato that allows him to get open and gain the necessary yardage on third down.
On 3rd-and-1, -2 and -3 last season, Shuler took all six of his receptions for a first down despite never gaining more than 11 yards on a single catch. On 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6, he took all seven of his receptions for a first down despite never breaking off a 20-yard catch.
He did exactly what he needed to keep the chains moving.
Shuler came up big in this regard when the Thundering Herd most needed it, too. Trailing Maryland by three points, 20-17, in the fourth quarter of the Military Bowl, Marshall faced a 3rd-and-4 in the red zone, and Cato hit Shuler on a quick out for the first down:
Earlier in the season against Virginia Tech, Shuler upped his range and converted a number of third downs from longer than six yards. Considering the talent level of the Hokies' defensive backfield, his 10 catches for 120 yards in that game were remarkable.
Here Shuler is on 3rd-and-8, adjusting to a lofted back-foot pass to haul in a 13-yard reception…plus the foul:
Three plays later, facing another 3rd-and-8, Shuler beat safety Kyshoen Jarrett to the sideline and made a sliding eight-yard catch:
And three plays after that, facing a 3rd-and-9, Shuler saw Cato leave the pocket, used some nifty footwork to adjust, lost his defender in man coverage and kept the drive alive with a 13-yard gain:
Unfittingly, this drive ended with a Cato interception, and Marshall ended up blowing its seven-point lead and losing in triple overtime. But the statement Shuler made against one of the nation's top secondaries was clear: Don't cover me with a safety.
Otherwise, you're in for a long afternoon.
Long-Yardage Receiver: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Call him a "product of the offense" if you want, but Antwan Goodley's speed made defenses pay for cheating on shorter routes.
He had 19 receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-longer, 12 of which went for first downs, and he took those 19 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns, ripping off four separate gains of 25-plus yards.
Here he is on 3rd-and-10 against Louisiana-Monroe, taking the top off the defense with a streak for a 65-yard touchdown:
It wasn't all boom or bust for long gains, either.
According to Football Study Hall (see: the attached spreadsheet), Goodley was efficient on all passing downs, hauling in 28 of his 43 targets (65 percent) for an average of 12.9 yards per target.
No player who averaged as many yards per target had more total targets, the closest being San Jose State's Chandler Jones (40). Among returning players with 15-plus targets from a power-five conference, the only one who bested Goodley's average was Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp…and he needed a Hail Mary pass to get there!
That is impressive efficiency for someone who's been labeled a big-play threat, and even though that label is fitting, it does not wholly encapsulate what Goodley is capable of. There is more to what he does than sprinting untouched down the field for six points.
Take, for example, this touchdown catch against Texas, which might have been the most important play of Baylor's season.
With the Big 12 title on the line and the game tied 3-3 in the third quarter, Baylor faced a 3rd-and-9 at the Longhorns' 11-yard line. Knowing that a touchdown would help break the game open, Petty looked to Goodley, who shook cornerback Duke Thomas with a slant route, reached out with one hand to catch a bad pass, kept his balance, broke a tackle and walked into the end zone:
That catch did, in fact, break the game open, and Baylor went on to win 30-10, securing its first Big 12 title in school history.
Goodley and Petty are back to defend that title in 2014.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT