#STINGDAILY: Third (Down) Degree

Oct. 27, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

There are multiples ways to break down a game, but for simplicity sake the easiest way to dissect Saturday’s Brigham Young-Georgia Tech contest is to look at third downs.

That and the fact that the Cougars were hyper-prepped to defend Tech’s option were microcosms of BYU’s win over the Yellow Jackets.

When a team enters a game converting nearly half its third downs (49.5 percent) and then goes 0-for-10, that squad is going to find itself fighting almost straight uphill.

The Jackets were searching for answers all afternoon on third downs. They failed to complete a pass in six attempts with one interception and a sack on a seventh pass play. Three sweeps to the right side didn’t work, either.

Tech netted -3 yards on those 10 third downs. Meanwhile, BYU converted 9-for-16. Those two factors encapsulated the Cougars’ huge edges in total yardage (411-157) and consequently time-of-possession (38:59-21:01).

“We didn’t get a lot of possessions (10, including a one-play possession to end the first half), and then when we did have the ball, we couldn’t convert on third down,” said Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “We just couldn’t keep the offense on the field . . . they limited us from big plays”

The last time Tech did not convert a third-down attempt came in 1980 against North Carolina.

The mentioned third-down formula won’t work unless an offense is hitting a healthy number of big plays on first and second downs. That didn’t happen, either.

The Jackets entered the game with 42 plays of 20 or more yards, an average of six per game. They had one Saturday, barely, when Robert Godhigh ran for 22 yards.

That came on Tech’s first possession of the second quarter with the Jackets trailing 14-7. Three plays later Orwin Smith swept right for 5 yards on third-and-6. Tech converted fourth-and-1 when Zach Laskey went for 1, but that possession ended when Smith swept right for 2 yards on third-and-5 before Justin Moore missed a 35-yard field goal try.

After the second game in the Johnson era in which the Jackets failed to score an offensive touchdown (the Jackets did not score an offensive TD Dec. 31, 2008 against LSU in the Chik-fil-A Bowl), Johnson pointed to the obvious: BYU is good on defense.

The Cougars entered the game ranked No. 4 in total defense (allowing 276.9 yards per game), No. 8 in rush defense (93.8 YAPG despite Notre Dame rushing for 270 a week earlier), and No. 8 in third down defense (27.8 percent allowed).

The Jackets rushed for 117 yards (a season low, on 35 carries), but the Cougars bettered their season averages with regards to total defense (a season-low 157 yards for Tech) and on third downs (obviously).

Johnson and the Jackets were tremendously disappointed. The head coach was not completely surprised, however. “That’s a good defense,” he said of BYU.

Indeed, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s forte is defense, and he still makes the calls for the Cougars.

BYU returned 11 starters from a top 20 defense from a year ago, and this is a team that is considerably better than its 5-4 record. The Cougars have lost to two top 10 teams (Oregon State and Notre Dame), another ranked team (Boise State), and lost 24-21 to rival Utah in a game that had a bizarre ending.

Plus, Mendenhall knows a thing or two about defending Tech’s offensive style.

“We worked overtime because of the 300-plus yards rushing, and 500 total and 37 points a game [that Tech averaged coming in],” Mendenhall said. “We did a lot of work. There’s been 15 or 16 years of defending Air Force. It’s kind of a passion I have to defend the option.

“We continue to look for new ideas and better ways to do it. We presented it very clearly to our players, but they took their assignments and just ran with it.”

The Cougars were not complex; they were sound.

Center Jay Finch said, “They’re a downhill defense,” which is a way of saying the Cougars come off the ball with a purpose rather in read-and-react mode. And they were in the right place most of time.

“They just pretty much played a straight 3-4 defense, and they didn’t have to do a whole lot. They ran a stunt here and there,” Johnson said. “We never got any rhythm going at all.”

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