UTC (0-2) at Austin Peay (0-1)
Saturday, 5 p.m.
Governors Stadium in Clarksville
Of all the missteps that have led to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's frustrating 0-2 start this season, one of the most glaring breakdowns has been third-down conversions. It's been an issue on both sides of the ball so far, and a trend the Mocs must begin to reverse Saturday at Austin Peay.
UTC's offense has converted just 5 of 26 (19 percent) third-down plays into first downs, while the two opponents have combined to pick up firsts on 15 of 33 (46 percent) third downs.
"They're huge," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said of third-down situations. "The key thing to that is what you do on first down. If your third downs are always third-and-9 or -10, your odds of converting are bad. That's on both sides of the ball. We emphasize getting 4 yards on first down and in putting the other guys in third-and-long situations.
"Against Central Michigan we kept them in third-and-longs but let them out a few times. We didn't do a bad job in that game defensively overall. Last week we only had a couple of manageable third downs on offense. When we did, you hope you're physical enough up there to get some movement so a big, physical back like Keon [Williams]can get you that yard or two. Obviously we didn't, so we had to punt the ball."
Against Central Michigan, UTC converted 3 of 11 third downs, going 1-for-3 when needing 3 yards or less and 0-for-7 when they needed 7 yards or more.
Last week in an overtime loss to Jacksonville State, the Mocs were 2-of-15 overall in third-down conversions and moved the chains just once when needing 4 yards or less on third down. That included a series late in the fourth quarter when UTC drove to the Gamecocks' 46 needing only a few more yards to get into Henrique Ribeiro field-goal range with the score tied.
But after Xavier Borishade was stopped for no gain on second-and-1, Williams also was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1 with just over four minutes remaining. Coach Huesman played the odds, opting to punt to pin JSU deep and use his three timeouts to try to get the ball back near midfield, or make a big play on special teams.
That decision nearly worked when Tommy Hudson returned the Gamecocks' ensuing punt 55 yards for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining, but the run was negated by a block-in-the-back penalty.
"The way our offense was playing Saturday, it was a no-brainer [to punt]," Huesman said. "As soon as I saw fourth down, I don't care if it was fourth and one-sixteenth of an inch, we were punting that football."
Earlier in the fourth quarter, UTC failed in another short-yardage situation, going from first-and-goal at the 2 to fourth-and-goal from the 5 after an incompletion and two rushing attempts lost 3 yards. That series ended with the Mocs settling for the tying field goal instead of taking their first lead of the game.
"You just have to realize as an offense those short-yardage situations start up front with us as blockers," senior fullback Taharin Tyson said. "Third down is the money down. Third down is where you win the game. We really have to put more of an emphasis on those. It's about mentality and not allowing them to stop us on third down.
"When we have third-and-1, we have to convert that. There's no excuse not to do that other than you don't have the mentality to do it. So we've been putting an emphasis on toughness more, and hopefully that will pay off on third-and-short situations and short-yardage downs."
When facing third and short (3 yards or less), the Mocs are 2-of-8 this season, averaging less than a yard (0.75) gained on those plays. On their seven snaps of third-and-4 or less last week the Mocs actually finished with a combined minus-5 yards. UTC ran 20 offensive plays before earning its initial first down, in the third quarter, last week. That included six straight series of three-and-out to begin the game.
Conversely, Jacksonville State was 10-of-20 in third-down situations, making good on four of seven when needing 4 yards or less. The Gamecocks went 6-of-13 on third-and-6 or more, even picking up first downs when needing 14, 11, 7, 10 and 8 yards to convert.
On their first touchdown drive, the Gamecocks converted a third-and-14, and on another TD drive they converted three third downs, including a third-and-11 and a third-and-7. They converted a third-and-8 later in the game on a drive that ended with a field goal.
"That's extremely frustrating, to have worked so hard on those first two plays and get them where you want them but then let them off the hook," junior defensive lineman Josh Freeman said. "We've got to stop that. We can't have that. It hurts. It kills you a little bit so we have to work on that. We have to make it more of a point in the game to hone in and focus on those third downs to not let them make a play.
"For our offense to convert them is huge, too. It's just as big as us not getting a stop, because it doesn't allow us to stay on the bench as long and gets us more winded at times. But we've talked about it in meetings a lot and we're working hard on it, so I believe we'll get all that fixed."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.