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Georgia Vs. South Carolina: Converting a Critical Game Into a Win

Both the Dawgs and the Gamecocks are converting third downs at a relatively high rate. What are the secrets to their success?

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

There aren't that many similarities between the Georgia and South Carolina offenses, at least on the surface.

The Dawgs rely on a fairly traditional offense, with a strong running game and a quarterback whose main skillset lies in dropping back and completing passes -- something Aaron Murray does exceptionally well. But no one is going to mistake Aaron Murray for Tim Tebow; through the season so far, he's lost eight yards rushing.

South Carolina's offense is slightly less robust and a little less traditional -- or at least, more willing to adopt some of the spread running concepts that have returned to the spotlight in recent years. Zone reads were a major part of the offense, at least until South Carolina seemed to largely abandon them through much of the Kentucky game. Still, Connor Shaw's strength lies in mixing the pass with his running abilities, all of which is helped in no small degree by the human battering ram that is Marcus Lattimore.

Georgia's offense is the most productive in the SEC, gaining 536 yards a game. South Carolina's is middling, churning out 409 yards a game, landing almost exactly at the SEC median with a ranking of seventh in the league.

But there's one fairly significant category where both teams do relatively well: Third-down conversions. Georgia ranks third in the SEC and South Carolina isn't far behind, coming in fifth. (The difference between the two is 0.62 percentage points.) Both are in the top third of the nation when they're down to what is usually their final chance for a first down. So how do they do it, and what might that tell us about next week's game? (Note: All data from, a site you should check if you want statistical bits.)

South Carolina on Third Down

For a team that has a bruising running back and has gotten attention for moving away from Steve Spurrier's first instinct to pass the football, South Carolina actually goes slightly against type in its third-down success rates. The Gamecocks are noticeably but not significantly more successful when they go with the pass, which produces a first down half the time, than when they go with the run, which produces a first down 43.2 percent of the time.

South Carolina Third-Down Conversions
Att Conv Pct
Passing 28 14 50.0
Rushing 37 16 43.2
Total 65 30 46.2

There are likely a few reasons for that, but one of the key reasons is likely what happens to Connor Shaw. For one thing, Shaw is not the kind of quarterback that throws the ball away a lot when the play breaks down -- he's more likely to take off and run and see how far he can get. That means that a play that should "count" against South Carolina's pass total, because it was intended to be a pass, ends up on the rushing side of the ledger. Also, the South Carolina offense line is tied with Missouri in allowing the second-most sacks in the SEC this year. Those would count as passing attempts in the NFL, but count as running attempts in college.

Let's break things down a touch more. Here are the players who were involved in more than five third-down attempts.

South Carolina Players Third-Down Conversions
Att Conv Pct
Connor Shaw (rushing)
17 6 35.3
Dylan Thompson (passing)
14 7 50.0
Connor Shaw (passing)
13 7 53.8
Marcus Lattimore (rushing)
9 6 66.7
Dylan Thompson (rushing)
6 1 16.7
Bruce Ellington
5 4 80.0

Keep in mind that Shaw's rushing attempts -- and even more so for Dylan Thompson's -- are probably inflated by sacks; designed quarterback runs or zone-read option plays for Shaw likely had a higher success rate than the roughly a third we see here.

Still, there are a few things we can glean here. All but one of Lattimore's rushing attempts and all of his conversions took place on 3rd-and-short (less than three yards). Shaw ran the ball in all sorts of situations, but some of that is likely due to the at-times porous offensive line. All of Ellington's five receptions came with at least four to six yards to go, with three of them coming with more than 10 yards to go.

All of which leads to a conclusion that is common sense enough on one level -- the Gamecocks run on short third-down attempts and throw on longer ones -- but gives us a little more specificity than that. Lattimore is the guy when the yardage is short and Ellington is the most popular target when it's a bit longer.

Georgia on Third Down

Georgia Third-Down Conversions
Att Conv Pct
Passing 35 15 42.9
Rushing 27 11 40.7
Total 62 26* 41.9* has Georgia credited with 29 overall first-down conversions on the 62 attempts; the only thing I can come up with is that perhaps they excluded third-down conversions via penalty. I'm not absolutely certain about that, but it's the only thing I can think of that would explain the missing conversions. With those factored in, Georgia gets up to 46.8 percent. What is striking is that, considering these numbers are correct, Georgia is not quite as successful on churning out third-down conversions with either the run or the pass.

The reverse side of this is that Georgia was marginally less likely to need a third-down conversion. About 18.5 percent of Georgia's plays were third-down attempts, compared to about 20.1 percent of South Carolina's plays. When you take all of that and mix it around, you probably get back roughly to where we began on third-down conversion rates -- it's been a wash so far this season.

There's also a slightly different balance here. Where South Carolina was more likely to run than to pass on third down, the opposite was true of Georgia, and to slightly greater degree. Part of that might have to do with the difference between Shaw and Aaron Murray, though that might be overstated a bit.

Georgia Players Third-Down Conversions
Att Conv Pct
Aaron Murray (passing)
32 14 43.8
Michael Bennett (receiving)
8 6 75.0
Aaron Murray (rushing) 8 4 50.0
Keith Marshall (rushing)
6 3 50.0

There are fewer names on this list, but largely because Murray is the only quarterback who's taken a significant number of snaps. Take Dylan Thompson off of South Carolina's list of five players with at least five attempted third-down conversions, and you have the exactly same numbers.

One noteworthy takeaway is that the Dawgs are more likely to turn to Keith Marshall than Todd Gurley or any other runner when going for it on third down, though he only got a plurality of the carries. (No one else had more than three attempts.) Marshall is seen as the open-field-speed half of the "Gurshall" duo, so it's an interesting philosophy to hand him the ball. Also, note that Aaron Murray can and does run with the ball, though most of the rushes appear to largely be sacks and quarterback sneaks or other short runs.

And you will notice that Michael Bennett appears to be the go-to receiver on third-down attempts. We'll have more on the impact of Bennett's loss later, but that will obviously need to change.