BATON ROUGE, La. — Third down is the ultimate sniff test for a football team.
Whether it’s getting the opposing offense off the field or demoralizing the opposing defense by keeping a drive alive, third downs separate good teams from bad ones. With that in mind, there is no disputing that the Tigers are a bad football team right now.
LSU’s offense was 0 for 8 on third down against Troy. It was a similarly unpleasant scene for the LSU defense, which surrendered 10 first downs on 18 third-down opportunities. And one of those stops was followed by a Troy touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
“There’s no excuse,” said junior safety John Battle. “You’ve got to get off the field. Most of that is on the secondary. I put that on us. We’ve got to do a better job next week and try to correct it.”
If the LSU defense is going to right itself on third down, Florida is the right place to begin the process. The Gators have struggled nearly as much as LSU, ranking 85th nationally with a 36.8 conversion rate. However, the Gators are also sneaky good on fourth down. Florida is 15th in the country on fourth down, picking up seven first downs in nine chances.
Even if the LSU defense pulls out of its third-down rut this week, the offense has a tougher task. No team in the SEC — including Alabama — is better at getting opposing offenses off the field than Florida. The Gators defense ranks 15th nationally with a 28.1-percent conversion rate.
“This is not who we are,” tight end Foster Moreau said of the third-down struggles against Troy.
Unfortunately, the numbers suggest otherwise. This was no isolated incident.
LSU’s offense ranks 93rd in the country on third down with a 35.7 percent conversion rate. Surprisingly, the Tigers are keeping decent company down there. No. 7 Michigan is 94th in the country with a 35.5 percent conversion rate. No. 4 Penn State is even worse, checking in at 95th with a 34.8 percent conversion rate.
But the Wolverines and Nittany Lions separate themselves from the Tigers in two ways.
One of them is fourth-down conversions. The Wolverines are 4 for 4 on fourth down. Penn State is 5 for 7. LSU is 3 for 7.
By percentage, the Tigers are ranked virtually the same nationally on fourth down as they are on third — 92nd. Michigan is tied for first and Penn State is tied for 20th on fourth down.
The biggest difference, though, is that Penn State and Michigan have good enough defenses to get off the field on third down. LSU does not.
The Tigers are ranked 84th in the country on third down with opponents converting 40.5 percent of their attempts. Third-down dominance by an offense is usually a sign of superior strength in the trenches, and that has often appeared to be the case this season. But that’s not the only element in play.
Offenses are always trying to get in “third-and-manageable” situations where there is an equal threat of passing and running. Realistically, that means third-and-4 or less. But the Trojans were still able to convert more challenging third downs, connecting on both a third-and-10 and a third-and-11. Few things dishearten a defense more than winning on first and second downs only to be burned on third.
Unless LSU finds a way to dramatically improve on third down, the Troy game serves as a warning sign of more troubling days to come.
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