Defensive coordinator John Chavis’ opening act was an evening he hopes to soon forget.
On a night when LSU gave up 478 total yards of offense to Washington, more than any team totaled on the Tigers in 2008, the third down bug was in full effect.
The Huskies finished 11-of-19 (58%) when the sticks read three, the highest percentage the Tigers have allowed so far in 2009. When the players returned to Baton Rouge, the defensive side expressed their worries and vowed to correct the mistakes before week two.
In their conference opener against Vanderbilt the next Saturday, the unit held the Commodore offense to 4-of-15 (27%) on third down - which remains their best mark through four games.
That number rose to 6-of-16 (38%) against Louisiana-Lafayette in week three. In Starkville last Saturday, the Bulldogs managed 8-of-19 (42%) conversions – one by way of a long passing touchdown and the rest coming in short yardage situations.
On Monday, LSU head coach Les Miles laid out the plan of where he wants the numbers moving forward.
“It depends on down and distance, but third down is where the defense has to get off the field,” he said. “You have to have the advantage when you are in third and long. If you have third and five or greater, you would like their offensive success to be 35- or 40-percent. On third and short, you would like it to be 50-50.”
Overall, the Tigers have met their headman’s mark of success. Yet according to the players on the defensive side, too many conversions have been made in short yardage situations – something the unit is set on fixing between the hedges on Saturday afternoon.
“You want to win those third downs to get off the field and put your offense in a position to put points on the board,” said senior tackle Al Woods. “A lot of times we are out of position, me especially, and it costs us the play. That has to change.”
A major concern for strong side linebacker Harry Coleman, who leads the team with 29 tackles, is how long the defensive side has been forced to stay on the field.
Case in point, prior to their fourth quarter, goal-line stand last Saturday the Tiger defense had spent over 21 of the 30 minutes of the second half on the field.
“We have got to get the ball back to our offense,” he said. “If teams keep converting, it keeps us out there longer and we are getting winded. That is going to be a real key this week. There is a sense of urgency, because the teams we are about to play are capable of making us pay with those mistakes.”
When the LSU offense was handed the ball, the side made positive strides – before Starkville, that is.
Against UW, Jefferson and Co. converted 5-of-10 (50%) third down conversions. They followed that up by converting on 9-of-17 (53%) against VU and 7-of-12 (58%) against ULL.
Then, on a rain-soaked field against an eight-man box, the Tiger offense stumbled to 2-of-13 (15%) third down conversions – by far their worst mark of the season.
“We have to continue to keep the ball alive on third,” said quarterback Jordan Jefferson. “We know that the defense will come to do the same thing that they have been doing, so it is on the offense.
“We are stopping ourselves, and we are keeping games closer than they should be. Once the small mistakes are corrected, I think we are going to be a great offense.”
One of the major points of worry has been the rushing attack, which has been unable to get the train of consistency rolling when running between the tackles – which leaves Miles in quite the predicament on third down calls.
“It is really a piece that we have to get to,” Miles said. “There are places that people need to come in and make differences. We would like to get Charles Scott and Keiland Williams going, and see if we can’t get a package developed with Russell Shepard. It is a work in progress.”
Through games against Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State, Georgia has won their third down battle in three outings. On the season, the Bulldogs have held opponents to 19-of-59 (32%) on third downs, while the offense has converted on 20-of-49 (41%) attempts.