Sooners emphasize third down defense in prep

IRVING, Texas — An elusive player like Robert Griffin III or Vince Young or the like usually leads to really good conversion rates on third down, and for the Texas A&M Aggies, that's just what they've got in signal caller Johnny Manziel.

The redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy winner has directed the Aggies to the No. 1 third down efficiency in the country at 55.4 percent.

That's nearly a full percentage point better than second-ranked Marshall.

A&M has successfully converted 102 of its 184 third downs this season.

On the other hand, the Sooners are rather poor in getting off the field defensively when they need to.

They rank just 71st in the country and seventh in the Big 12 Conference in third down percentage defense, successfully forcing fourth down just shy of 41.4 percent of the time.

OU has prevented a first down in only 79 of its 191 attempts in 2012, so there's definitely something left to be desired.

And given the success from their Cotton Bowl opponent on the other side of the ball in those situations, this isn't a game where that pattern can continue.

"It will be a huge part of the game," said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. "You give Manziel more opportunities to make plays, and then you're going to be in a lot of trouble. We're going to have to come up with some great plays on third down."

Perhaps that starts up front with guys like defensive tackles Jamarkus McFarland and David King—he's moved inside again for this matchup—getting pressure and forcing Manziel into uncomfortable situations.

That has been hard to come by for teams facing the Aggies, but it'll be a must if it hopes to slow down this very potent offense.

"When the time comes third down, you gotta get him off the field because the more opportunities you give him, the more plays he's gonna make," McFarland said. "That's the biggest thing. Capitalizing third downs and the team that gets the most turnovers."

Those turnovers, of course, come from pressure.

But the second level of the defense, which linebackers coach Tim Kish said will operate with a more conventional three-backer set this time, plus the back line must show up.

"Well, they're No. 1 in the conference in third down conversions, you know, so we're very aware of that," Kish said. "They're No. 1 in a lot of things in their conference on offense. So, there's a lot of things that we gotta take care of and third down, getting off the field and being able to put our offense out there is gonna be a big factor in the game. No question about it."

In games like this, it's really quite simple a lot of times, even if it's not simple to accomplish what needs to be done.

In this case, there's no doubt that's getting their defense to the sideline as efficiently as possible by limiting the damage and returning Sooner quarterback Landry Jones and the explosive OU offense in between the chalk where it can do damage.

"Every game you want to get off the field on third-down because regardless of who you're playing, they'll beat you if you keep giving them third downs," said defensive end R.J. Washington. "You have the Heisman winner, and if you give him a bunch of third downs, it's going to be a long, long day."

A long day the Sooners don't really want to deal with.

Other teams have, and it hasn't been a pretty sight for them.

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