Third Down Difference Tells Part Of Tale For Virginia

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Virginia is 3-2 entering a bye week.
Virginia couldn’t get off the field on third down defensively and couldn’t convert on third down offensively. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The Virginia football team hoped to win its ACC road opener for a third straight season, but NC State snuffed out those hopes with a strong overall showing and the ability to make plays when it counted most. In the end, the Wolfpack claimed a 35-21 win in Raleigh.

After the game, the Cavaliers rued missed opportunities as they failed to come through in critical moments, while the Pack repeatedly made plays when needed most. Perhaps nothing served as a greater microcosm of the difference than how the two teams performed on third down. UVA finished 4 of 13 in that category, while NCSU converted 8 of 13 chances. That’s approximately a 31% difference in success rate.

“They threw and caught and protected on third down better than we rushed and covered and executed,” Bronco Mendenhall said per Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com.

The two teams started off even in the third down race with each converting just one of three attempts at first. That stalled out an early State drive that ended with a field goal, while Virginia followed up one of its failed attempts with a fourth down conversion on a touchdown drive. That gave the visitors the 7-3 lead in the first quarter.

After that, however, the Wolfpack got on track. They converted their next four third downs and seven of their final 10. The hosts converted three times on a second quarter touchdown drive to take the lead for good. They converted on a 3rd-and-6 in the final 10 seconds of the first half to help kicker Chris Dunn hit a 44-yarder. They came through with third down conversions on two other touchdown drives too.

The 8-13 final tally doesn’t include two other third down conversions courtesy of Virginia penalties. Those are just other examples of missed chances to get off the field.

On the other side, the Hoos failed on their next three third down attempts after taking the 7-3 lead. They converted on just three of their final 10 conversion attempts. When they did come through on third down, it helped lead to two touchdown drives in the second half.

Did down and distance play a role in the category? Not necessarily. Overall, UVA faced 3rd-and-5 or more to go on eight occasions, while State had five yards or more to go on 10 third downs.

Of its eight conversions, NC State moved the chains on 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-7, 3rd-and-6, 3rd-and-9, and 3rd-and-5. That’s five conversions on medium and long chances. The two aforementioned penalty conversions that aren’t in the box score total came on 3rd-and-6 and 3rd-and-11. A combination of an ineffective pass rush and defenders not making a play from the proper positioning on the field contributed to State’s success. Virginia, on the other hand, made just two medium or long conversions, coming through once on 3rd-and-11 and once on 3rd-and-6.

The Wolfpack overcame those situations much more consistently. The Cavaliers simply couldn’t get off the field on defense or stay on the field on offense often enough to get the job done.

“Too many negative plays at critical moments. We just didn’t execute consistently enough as we needed to win the game,” Olamide Zaccheaus said per Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com.

“We played well enough to make it interesting,” Mendenhall said per Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com, “but not well enough to win the game.”

While the third down statistics told a big part of the story, there were other missed opportunities on the list for Virginia too. On the kickoff after NCSU took the lead for the first time at 10-7, Virginia’s Joe Reed returned the kickoff 43 yards to set his team up near midfield at its own 48-yard line. The Hoos squandered that return with a penalty, a play that lost yards, and an incompletion.

UVA nearly created a turnover several times. Two big examples of that were interception chances for corner Bryce Hall, but he couldn’t secure the catch. One of those came with a lot of open field in front of him that could have set up field position for the offense. Brenton Nelson, who eventually left the game with a reported concussion, had a chance to get one too but that third down play in the end zone ended up as a State touchdown instead. The Hoos’ receivers dropped some balls too on offense that could have moved the chains.

“It was really that simple,” Hall said according to Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com. “Their guys made plays, and we didn’t, when the ball was in the air.”

On special teams, Virginia had two punts from near midfield that could have flipped the field and pinned State. On those two punts, Lester Coleman connected for more than 50 yards and the coverage team didn’t get down there to prevent a pair of touchbacks. That’s 40 hidden yards of field position on just those two kicks.

Then there was the fourth quarter. The Hoos drove the ball to the NC State 21-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, trailing just 27-14 with some momentum building. With 2nd-and-4 on the menu, a misdirection call to try to get into the option backfired. On 3rd-and-4, Jordan Ellis couldn’t get the room he needed and Bryce Perkins missed with a fourth down pass attempt downfield.

Later on another drive, Virginia moved inside the NCSU 10-yard line thanks in part to a pair of fourth down penalties on the Pack that kept the drive alive. That one ended in an interception.

That’s a lot of chances to make a play that could have changed the flow of the game. Now the Wahoos have two weeks to try to bounce back from the loss before Miami comes to Charlottesville.

“That’s just kind of where we are, where there’s one, two, three, a handful of plays we have to make to come on the road and win a game like this,” Mendenhall said per Jeff White at VirginiaSports.com. “There’s plenty of other stuff [that factored in], but really it still comes down a handful of those plays, and we didn’t make enough of them.”

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