Penn State converted on just two third downs this weekend, a third-and-1 on their second possession and a seven-yard pickup in the fourth quarter. Their other 10 attempts were much less successful, and they ended the day at just 16.7 percent. The fact that this hurt Michigan’s third down defensive efficiency shows just how dominant the Wolverines have been this season.
At 12 percent, Michigan ranks first in the nation in preventing third down conversions. Only three other teams sit under 20 percent, and the next best Big Ten defense – this week’s opponent, Wisconsin -- sits 11th at 23.9 percent, almost double Michigan’s. None of the Wolverines’ first four foes have found any success on third downs: Hawaii converted at 9.1 percent, Central Florida at 14.3 percent, and Colorado at 7.7 percent.
A big part of this success has been forcing difficult situations on third downs. This Saturday, the Nittany Lions faced an average of 6.8 yards to go on third down, and needed 10 or more yards a third of the time. Against these situations, Michigan did not allow any conversions while recording a pair of sacks.
Solid third down defense is not something new for the Wolverines. Michigan finished 2015 at 27.6 percent, good for third best in the country. Interestingly, it was current defensive coordinator Don Brown’s previous employer, Boston College, who led the nation at 24.1 percent. While Michigan’s current rate is sure to rise as the season progresses and as the defense faces more potent offenses, they have a great shot at challenging the Eagles’ mark from last season, which was the best rate since 2010.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan is doing just as well on third downs. The Wolverines have converted 54.4 percent of their third down opportunities so far this season, good for seventh in the country. They would have to keep it up to jump up to first, which is currently Purdue at 59.9 percent, but it is a bit higher than their 46.2 percent conversion rate last year.
While Michigan’s current third down efficiency is very strong, their conversion rate this season could be even higher. Michigan was successful on just one of eight conversion attempts in the first half against Colorado. Removing this half from the season totals would put the Wolverines at 61.2 percent. Of course, one whole half of a game cannot simply be forgotten, but Michigan clearly has the ability to keep the chains moving.
Just as Michigan’s defense has put themselves in favorable positions to prevent third down conversions, the offense has been great at helping themselves as well. Against Penn State on Saturday, Michigan faced just two third downs greater than 10 yards in the first half. The Wolverines converted on seven of 10 attempts during the half and needed only five or fewer yards on half of these attempts.
Only one school has finished in the top five in both offensive and defensive third down efficiency in the last eight years, and no Power 5 schools have done so during that span. Through the first third of the season, Michigan looks like they could make a run at this feat. The schedule is getting tougher, but Michigan has shown that they can be a force on both sides of the ball.