Buckeyes Came Up Empty On Third Down

Most would agree that for a football team to be successful, it must perform well on third downs. A quick glance at the stat sheet, then, shows one of the keys to Ohio State's title game loss to LSU Monday night. The Tigers dominated on both sides of the ball on third down on the way to their win.

NEW ORLEANS – If third down is the money down for a football team, Ohio State went broke during its 38-24 loss to LSU during the BCS National Championship Game Monday night.

Looking for a secret to LSU's offensive dominance that allowed the Tigers to score 31 points in a row at one point is a bit difficult on first glance. After all, the Buckeyes outgained LSU in both total yards (353-326) and yards per play (6.3-4.3).

But that did not stop the Tigers from marching more than 60 yards on four of the five scoring drives that turned OSU's 10-0 lead into a 31-10 deficit for the Buckeyes. The common link between those drives: third-down proficiency set up by solid gains early in the count.

After three quarters of play, the Tigers were 11 of 14 on third downs; on their five scoring drives, they were 10 of 12. Of the failed conversions, one came a play before Colt David's 32-yard field goal, and the other was negated when Buckeye Austin Spitler roughed the punter on the ensuing fourth down, allowing LSU to keep possession and march for a touchdown.

One factor that goes into LSU's third-down dominance was simply the yards to go on each play. On the three third downs during the first three quarters that LSU did not convert, the Tigers had to go an average of 14.3 yards to reach the first down marker.

But on the 10 third downs on scoring drives that did come to fruition, LSU had to go an average of 2.2 yards to reach the marker. Seven of those third downs were third-and-1 situations.

In other words, Ohio State's defense had the equivalent of a short stack at a table of high rollers going into those important plays.

"It was just a matter of us executing," defensive end Vernon Gholston said. "Some days we do and today wasn't the day for us to execute well. We didn't execute well."

A number of common plays could be found on many of the conversion plays. Bruising tailback Jacob Hester converted five of the third downs on his own, and his 1-yard scoring run with 4:16 to play in the second quarter came on a third down after the back had been stuffed on each of the first two plays of the set.

Twice during the first three quarters, the Tiger quarterback Matt Flynn hit a tight end for the first down. The first time was an 18-yard pass to backup Keith Zinger on third-and-1 from the OSU 44 that kept alive the drive that gave LSU the lead for good. Later, during the third, Flynn converted a third-and-4 with an 11-yard pass to starter Richard Dickson, who finished with four catches.

"We knew that in crucial situations Flynn would try to go to them, just in third-down situations," OSU linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "Dickson is just an unbelievable talent and a good safe bet for Flynn."

Two other plays saw LSU's wideouts shake free, the most notable of which came on a third-and-5 from Ohio State's 10-yard line with the score tied at 10. Flynn dropped back and lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone that was caught by Brandon LaFell, who had shaken free of his man coverage by Malcolm Jenkins.

"Somebody had that person man and somebody didn't execute and made a mistake," linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "Any time you do that against a great team like LSU, you're not going to win."

While the fact of the matter is that most teams would be hard-pressed to stop the third-and-short situations that Ohio State found itself in, Gholston said the team's mind-set probably didn't help the situation.

"It's more of understanding that this is the big down," Gholston said. "Obviously they are going to fight a little bit harder on third down to try to get the first down, and we didn't fight a little bit harder. When they fought, we didn't rise to the occasion and they made plays."

On the other side of the ball, Ohio State completed just 3 of 13 third-down plays, and quarterback Todd Boeckman threw two interceptions and was sacked twice on the down. By the end, when the clock hit zeroes, so did OSU's bank account on the money down.

"They came out to play," defensive tackle Doug Worthington said of LSU's third-down play. "At the end of the day, they executed and they did what they had to do."

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