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Third-down conversions were key to Texas’ improvement in 2018

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The Longhorns went from one of the worst teams in the country to one of the best when facing third downs

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, the Texas Longhorns were one of the best teams in the country on third down.

When it was all said and done, Texas finished No. 18 in the country in third-down conversions, coming up with the necessary yardage on 46.38 percent of their plays. That statistic pops even more when you take into account how the Longhorns started the season.

One of the major struggles in the embarrassing season opener against the Maryland Terrapins was Texas’ inability to convert on third downs. Texas converted on just three of its 15 third-down attempts for an abysmal 20 percent conversion rate.

To put that into perspective, if Texas converted on just three more of its third downs against Maryland — which would still have been one of the two worst performances of the year — the Horns would have jumped into the top 10 teams nationally in 2018.

But as anyone who followed Texas’ 2018 season would tell you, when the Longhorns struggled on third down, it was because they struggled on the first two downs.

11 of the Longhorns’ 15 third-down attempts against the Terrapins were from six-plus yards. Texas converted on just two of those in the game, making it even more of an outlier statistically.

When looking at third-down attempts, six yards is the longest distance to be considered medium distance on the attempt. On the year, Texas actually had quite a bit of success from medium distances, converting on 55.3 percent on those attempts, good enough for No. 23 in the country. When looking at the Longhorns’ third-down efficiency overall, the biggest area for improvement Texas has in 2019 is the ability to convert on what should be easier attempts of three or fewer yards.

Texas did a great job overall getting to those third and short situations, ranking No. 14 in the country at doing so, but the Horns were slightly inconsistent at making the most of those opportunities. Calling it a struggle would be unfair, as Texas converted on 80.7 percent of its short third-down attempts. However, missing on two of every 10 short-yardage attempts did put Texas at No. 37 in the country, which is 10 spots lower than its ability to convert from distances of seven yards and greater.

Statistically, Texas’s best game of the year was the Big 12 Championship game against the Oklahoma Sooners, which tilted in the Longhorns favor early. This game, just like Maryland before it, serves as a case study of the importance of third downs in the Longhorns success in 2018.

Texas started the game 3-of-5 on third downs, which helped the Longhorns build an early 14-6 lead. The Longhorns closed the half converting one of their final three conversions, allowing Oklahoma to score 14 unanswered points to take a six-point lead.

The Sooners scored to open the half, but Texas responded by going a perfect 3-of-3 in the third quarter and tied the game 27-27 as the quarter closed. If Texas had not dealt with a back-breaking safety, that trend could have continued in the fourth quarter.

Year-to-year, Texas improved its overall third-down production by more than eight percentage points, which proves the marked strides the Horns have made on the offensive side of the ball. The 38.05 percent conversion rate in Tom Herman’s first year was good enough for No. 80 in the country. Of their 11 games in 2017, the Longhorns had just four outings with a conversion percentage over 45 percent.

In 2018, they walked away with nine of their 14 outings finishing better than 45 percent. Their top performance in 2017 would be in a three-way tie for No. 4 when stacked against 2018, eight percent behind 2018’s top performance.

In 2019, the job for the Texas offense becomes even more critical as they try to build on last year’s success. The Longhorns will spend the early part of the season trying to find contributors on defense that can gel. As they do, continuing the standard set last season will give the defense plenty of opportunity to find its footing between series.