On third down, UCLA has a long way to go.
And that goes for both the Bruins offense and defense.
The Bruins are currently No. 101 in the nation in third down conversions at 31.58 percent and No. 111 in the nation at preventing third down conversions, allowing opponents to convert 51.16 percent of the time. Top offenses convert 45 percent or more of third downs and the leading defenses generally keep opponents to 35 percent or less on third down conversions.
The are a multitude of things going wrong. On offense, penalties, missed blocking assignments, bad routes by receivers and poor passes from quarterbacks have all contributed in inefficient third down play. On defense, missed tackles, blown coverages, out of position players and penalties have cropped up on a regular basis.
It's a troubling trend that is as much to blame for UCLA's early season struggles as anything and is one that needs to be reversed if Bruins are going to salvage the season by having a strong showing in conference play. UCLA plays its Pac-12 opener Saturday at Oregon State.
"It's not any one thing, we've just got to be more consistent," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "Those are the things that have plagued us and so that'll have to get better and get better fast as we head into the meat of our schedule against a very, very difficult Pac-12 conference."
The problems on defense started early: On the first drive of the season, Houston went four-for-four on third downs, including converting a third and seven and a third and nine. On Houston's second drive, the Cougars converted a third and 11. Houston finished the game eight for 13 on third down conversions.
Against San Jose State, UCLA gave up 16 yards on a third and 10, 18 yards on a third and seven, 19 yards on a third and seven and--for good measure--gave up 11 yards on a fourth and 4. The Spartans, one of the handful of teams worse than UCLA in third down offense, managed to convert four of nine third downs in the first half of against the Bruins.
And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, along came Texas, which was nine of 11 on third-down conversions through three quarters. The Longhorns made the most of those conversions, too, gaining 193 total yards yards on third down plays alone, including a 45-yard touchdown on third and 10 and a 25-yard pass on third and 18.
"We've let the quarterback get outside the defense a couple of times and get into scramble mode," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "When you get into scramble mode, it’s not good. The field gets dispersed, people get dispersed. For whatever reason, we're getting killed on third down and allowing our opponents to sustain drives and keep momentum."
On offense, third down inefficiencies have sucked the energy out of many a drive this season--especially on third and short. Against Houston, the Bruins were in two-minute mode at the end of the first half and faced a third and three when guard Chris Ward jumped and turned it into a third and eight. An incomplete pass and a punt gave the ball back to the Cougars, who scored a touchdown for a 31-14 halftime lead.
Against San Jose State, UCLA converted only four of 13 third downs. They failed on a third and goal from the three and had to settle for a field goal. Earlier, Johnathan Franklin had fumbled on a third and one, giving San Jose State the ball at the UCLA 34 yard line with the score tied at 17-17.
And against Texas, the Bruins were a paltry three of 13 on third down conversions with one egregious error that sums up UCLA's third down atrocities so far. On third and one near midfield, UCLA called a timeout to set up the play, but came out with 12 men on the field, turning it into a third and six. The Bruins punted after failing to convert.
Three of UCLA's six penalties in that game came on third down plays, and so did two of Kevin Prince's three first-quarter interceptions. The one at the Texas five yard line when the Longhorns lead was still only 7-0 was particularly painful.
"We’ve got to do a better job on third downs on both sides of the ball, no question," Neuheisel said. "Those are the plays that keep and kill momentum and win and lose games. If we fix that, it will solve a lot of our problems."