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Washington State owns top fourth down conversion rate in FBS, but it’s come at a cost

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Dezmon Patmon (12) hauls in a pass over San Jose State during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, September 8, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – You don’t become a great fourth down team without first becoming a bad third down team.

That’s one of many lessons Washington State has learned through the first two weeks of the 2018 football season. The Cougars may be proud of their FBS-leading fourth down conversion rate, which sits at 7-of-9 (77.7 percent) after games against Wyoming at San Jose State, but at the same time they’re cognizant of the fact it’s partly a byproduct of missed opportunities on third down.

WSU is just 7-of-28 (25 percent) on third down and tied for 117th in the country.

“We’re actually talking to the officials, if we can set the marker for third down, actually say it’s fourth down and go ahead from there,” Cougars running backs coach Eric Mele joked after Sunday’s practice. “So pretty good,” Mele said of the fourth-down success, “but might as well not get to fourth down, do it on third down.”

WSU moved the chains five times on fourth down in the first half of Saturday’s 31-0 win over SJSU. In the first quarter, the Cougars were left in no man’s land, facing fourth-and-10 on the Spartans’ 36-yard line. Too close to punt, but probably too far to feel good about redshirt freshman kicker Blake Mazza hitting a long field goal. Quarterback Gardner Minshew dropped back and flung a pass toward the left sideline, hitting Tay Martin for a touchdown that made it 14-0.

Minshew and Martin nearly made it two touchdowns on fourth down later in the half, but the receiver couldn’t hang on to a long ball in the front end zone, although refs thought he’d brought it in and initially signaled a touchdown. A pass interference penalty on the Spartans allowed the Cougars to keep the drive going.

“I was pleased with the fourth downs, but the third downs prior to that I was disappointed in,” Leach said after the game. “Offensively, we need to be a better third down team. … I think the biggest thing, we need to be more consistent. I think our lack of consistency is affecting that.”

The Cougars will simulate third-down situations more often in practice this week, with repercussions for those times the offense is not successful. That began Sunday evening at Martin Stadium, some 24 hours after the Cougars went just 4-of-14 on third down in their home opener against the Spartans.

“Just a higher emphasis on that and we just did it in practice tonight, actually, too,” Mele said. “We put a little more on the line, made it a little more competitive, a little more incentivized. If they don’t get the third down in practice, we’re going to have a little bit of a penalty for it. So it’ll be definitely an emphasis going forward.”

Added Leach Monday afternoon: “We’re definitely going to do that, we’re going to make it a competitive situation. Right now, we probably lead the nation in time of possession – a stat that I don’t value at all. I would definitely swap that for being better on third downs.”

So, success on fourth down is fine. Not getting there in the first place is even better.