Three games into the season, the southernmost Football Bowl Subdivision team still might as well be playing offense with Canadian football’s three downs instead of American football’s four.
FIU played what might have been its best game in almost two years before losing 42-25 to Pittsburgh on Saturday. Yet one of last year’s worst characteristics, third-down inefficiency, remains an illness the Panthers can’t shake and one that cost them dearly again Saturday.
A 3-for-14 day turning third downs into first downs against Pitt leaves FIU at 10 for 45 (22.2 percent) this season, 124th out of 125 FBS teams. That’s a one spot improvement over 2013, when FIU finished last in the nation.
FIU coach Ron Turner pointed to the Panthers’ third-down problems in the second and third quarters as the turning point from a 16-0 FIU lead to a 26-16 Pitt advantage.
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“First down, it seemed like we ran the ball, we got nothing — second-and-10,” Turner said. “If we threw the ball, it was incomplete, so we got nothing. We were faced with long-yardage situations the whole second and third quarter. That was frustrating. That was one of the things we said. We have to stay on schedule. Get positive plays on first down, get it to second-and-medium, second-and-short, and if you get to third down, it’s manageable.”
Actually, those two quarters against a wind felt more on the field than in the sweltering stands saw FIU’s only three third-down conversions. But on the other seven third downs, FIU faced third-and-9 from its own 5-yard-line; third-and-15; third-and-42 (two holding penalties and a fumbled snap for a loss of 12 on three first-down plays); third-and-7; third-and-8; third-and-10; and third-and-4.
First down proved to be the problem down last year for FIU, too. But when the season opened with a 1-for-16 night against Bethune-Cookman, distance didn’t seem to be the problem. The only successful third-down conversion came on a third-and-4, after a 6-yard first-down pass. Of the 15 third-down failures, only five were longer than third-and-7.
“Most of it has been third-and-manageable,” Turner said last week. “The whole problem has been us — dropping passes, missed assignments in the running game, missed assignments protection-wise.”
To drive home the oddity of a three-safety game, consider that Pitt and FIU managed three safeties Saturday. Before that game, the most safeties FIU and its opponents combined for during an entire season was three, in 2007.