When it comes to third down, Miami Hurricanes right guard Brandon Linder has a simple philosophy:
“It’s called let’s get a first down,” the 6-6, 308-pound junior said with a chuckle.
If only it were that easy.
The Canes offense made converting third downs look nearly impossible the last time they played, finishing 1 for 12 against Virginia Tech on Nov. 1.
The 8.3 percent conversion percentage wasn’t just the worst performance of the season, it might have served as a wake-up call for Jedd Fisch’s offense, which was bailed out by a UM defense that created three turnovers and had three stops deep in the red zone, and a special teams unit that made it easier to score on a short field.
Fisch called his offense’s performance on third down against Virginia Tech “an anomaly.” But his players say they know they’ve got to improve and take some pressure off the defense this week at Virginia, which ranks ninth nationally on third-down defense (29.1 percent).
“We’ve been [messing] with our defense too much lately,” Linder said of the Canes’ offense, which has 10 three-and-outs in the past two games after just 12 in the first seven games. “We got to get it going for them.”
Since converting 37 of 79 attempts (46.8 percent) in a 4-1 start to the season, UM has converted just 15 of 55 third-down tries (27.3 percent) over the past four games.
CAVS’ RECORD MISLEADING?
Despite the Cavaliers’ 1-4 ACC record and 3-6 overall record, UM coach Al Golden had high praise for their defense and said his Canes (5-4, 4-2) should be well aware that Virginia is a physical team.
“Virginia’s record doesn’t really match how good they are,” said third-string running back Dallas Crawford, who came within a foot of throwing a touchdown pass on a trick play against the Hokies in his first real action of the season on offense.
“I really don’t know how they’ve lost six games. We’ve been putting a little extra emphasis on third down this week.”
Being good on third down is pretty much a recipe for success. Of the Top 20 ranked teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings, the top 18 all convert significantly more third downs on offense than they allow opponents to convert while on defense.
The Hurricanes are converting at 38.8 percent on offense on third down while allowing opponents to convert 43.2 percent. A year ago, UM was better on both fronts: 42.6 percent on offense and 41.3 percent on defense.
Fisch said UM’s recent third-down woes on offense begin on first and second down.
“If your third downs aren’t third-and-10, it isn’t much of an issue,” Fisch said. “We [convert] 58 percent on third-and-6 or less, 90 percent on third-and-1. But when you end up having a lot of third-and-8, 9, 10s, we struggle there. But most teams do. You really have to execute.”
Virginia, which ranks 34th against the run (133.89 yards per game) and 44th in passing-efficiency defense, had its first real breakout performance of the season in a 33-6 win against N.C. State. The Cavs forced five turnovers and recorded six sacks while holding the Wolfpack to 2 of 13 on third-down conversions.
“They’re really honed up on the blitz game and movement up front,” Linder said. “For us, it comes down to executing our assignments.”
While protecting quarterback Stephen Morris hasn’t been an issue (the Canes have allowed just 13 sacks this season), connecting with his receivers has been lately. Golden said Morris doesn’t always have to look downfield. There are plenty of options underneath.
“You have to go know who the go-to-guy is, who’s hot, who’s catching the ball and on third down you want to go to that guy,” said receiver Phillip Dorsett, who had three third-down passes thrown his way that fell incomplete against the Hokies.
“Sometimes it’s just about making the easy completions.”