BATON ROUGE, La. -- Gabe Wright couldn’t believe it either.
When reporters told the Auburn defensive lineman that his team prevented LSU from achieving a single third-down conversion last Saturday, Wright replied, “I didn’t think that was possible.”
Obviously it’s possible, but it’s extremely rare – especially when the opponent led the nation in third-down conversions a season ago. The key figures in LSU’s third-down efficiency from 2013 – quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill – are all in the NFL now, however, and their replacements’ inexperience was evident as LSU went 0-for-13 on third down in the 41-7 loss to Auburn.
“Last year we had guys who had a great feel for each other and this year you can tell we’re not that comfortable. We’re not too successful on third down,” receiver Travin Dural said. “That comes along with growing and maturing and also just executing. A lot of times on third down, teams, they’ll show us some things and as a young group, we’ll come out and we won’t execute the play how we should and I feel like that’s just really been happening on third down.”
Only three FBS teams this season have had a game where they failed to convert a single third down, with LSU joining UConn (versus South Florida) and Nevada (versus San Jose State). Further, dating to the start of the 2004 season, only 10 SEC teams have gone 0-for on third down in a game and just 77 teams have matched that record for futility in the 15,694 results that ESPN Stats & Information has tracked in those 10-plus seasons.
In other words, 99.5 percent of all games in the last decade featured teams that turned at least one third-and-something into a first down or touchdown. Getting saddled with a goose egg is hardly something that LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants on his résumé.
“We just have to execute,” Dural said. “Being young can’t always be the excuse for why we don’t execute on third down; 0-for-13 is not something that we were happy and proud to do, so we just have to come out and execute, have a great week of practice. That way we’ll have a feel for each other when we are in them situations and we’re comfortable.”
Indeed, LSU (4-2, 0-2 SEC) failed to manage some reasonable third-down situations against Auburn.
In its first five games, LSU needed to gain an average of 7.2 yards on third down in order to achieve a first down or touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Tigers converted 41.9 percent of the time, which already represented a steep decline from last season’s 57.1 percent conversion rate. Still, it’s far better than the 0 percent they posted against Auburn, when their average distance to go on third down was exactly the same as the previous average: 7.2 yards.
Perhaps spurred by the inexperience of freshman quarterback Brandon Harris – who made his first college start against Auburn – LSU played it close to the vest early in the Auburn game. On their first five third downs, the Tigers faced an average of third-and-4.6 and opted to run the ball all but once.
They were already down 24-7 by the time they started throwing it consistently on third down, but Harris was just 1-for-4 for 3 yards on third down from that point. And Anthony Jennings didn’t fare any better once he replaced Harris, going 0-for-3 – although a fourth Jennings pass attempt resulted in a pass interference penalty that gave LSU a rare first down.
“We’ve just got to execute on the field,” Harris said. “Again, I’m reiterating passes that I missed, guys that are running wide open that I’m normally hitting, I just missed them, man, and it’s just that simple. I didn’t play good at all, by any means.”
Nobody did. And yet the Tigers should have an opportunity to improve in that department come Saturday. They’ll visit Florida (3-1, 2-1), which ranks 12th in the SEC and 79th nationally in third-down defense by allowing opponents to convert 41.3 percent of the time.
Will the Tigers be able to exploit that weakness, though? Not without the offensive line creating more running room for the backs or the quarterbacks hitting the receivers with consistency – neither of which happened on third down against Auburn.
“I think Coach Cam put us in a great position to give us an opportunity to convert those third downs,” receiver John Diarse said. “As an offensive unit, we’ve just got to execute better.”