Could 3-and-outs be the key for an improved penn state football team?

By Craig Fritz on June 23, 2017 at 9:24 am
The Nittany Lion
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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You already know that we're pretty big fans of advanced statistics in all sports. They can help find hidden yards/points/advantages that standard metrics may not notice. Today we'll take a look at three-and-out rates for the 2016 Nittany Lions and see if an improvement could be a major factor for a successful 2017 campaign.


While writing his incredible team previews for 2017, Bill Connelly of SB Nation and S&P+ notoriety dropped an article examining three-and-out rates for all of college football. It's another fascinating piece of the puzzle as it relates to advanced metrics in college football. As Connelly explains: 

"...creating and avoiding three-and-outs is merely step one toward having a good offense or defense. Purdue, for instance, was pretty good at moving the chains once and pretty iffy at everything else. Still, it’s something we draw reference to here and there, but it’s not a list I share frequently enough."

So basically, this statistic looks at all three-and-out drives (three plays and a punt) and a metric he calls three-and-out+, which are drives of three plays or less that that didn't result in points (turnover, end of half, etc.)

what does this mean for penn state?

Even though the Nittany Lions were an absolute bomb squad in the second half of the season, igniting a magical run to the Rose Bowl, the offense AND defense were quite inconsistent. For as many big plays as the offense gained, the defense gave up quite a few big plays as well, and struggled to get off the field at times. Likewise, the offense had too many quick possessions that put the defense right back on the field.

  possessions 3&O percent rank 3&O+ percent rank
offense 189 39 20.63% 64 55 29.1% 57
defense 189 46 24.34% 42 63 33.33% 45

These numbers put the Lions squarely in the middle of the pack nationally, and in the B1G. In fact, looking at the difference in three-and-out percentage margin (defensive percentage minus offensive percentage), Penn State ranked seventh in the conference at 3.7-percent. Michigan was the best at 14.5-percent and Rutgers was the worst a -14.3-percent. It turns out, being able to keep your offense on the field and giving your defense a rest is a recipe for football success!

The question becomes, how many more (defense) or fewer (offense) three-and-outs would truly make a difference for the team? Consider this: 14 fewer three-and-outs (one per game) and Penn State would have the No. 3 offense in the nation in that category. Similarly, just one more three-and-out per game forced by the defense would vault the unit to No. 5 nationally. The obvious take away here is giving the offense more opportunity to score, and the opposing team fewer opportunities to score is always a good thing. 

It's probably not realistic to expect that big of a jump for either unit, but just a handful of additional three-and-outs on either side of the ball could provide the Lions with even better odds to win as many games as possible. Who wouldn't have liked one more possession against Pitt or USC? Or perhaps one fewer possession for their offenses?

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