ATHENS — There are teams that are worse than Georgia at converting third downs. Well, three of them to be exact.
Miami of Ohio, Kent State and Hawaii have poorer conversion percentages than the Bulldogs, who are ranked 124th out of 127 FBS schools at 29.0 percent. So it would be factually accurate to the say that UGA is the worst Power 5 team in America when it comes to third-down conversions.
As the Bulldogs get set to play host to Missouri in its first primetime night game of the season Saturday at Sanford Stadium (7:30 p.m., SEC Network), that’s particularly pertinent for a couple of reasons. One, Georgia will be taking on a defense that’s 1B to Alabama’s 1A in the conference. The Tigers give up fewer points (13.5) and only 11 more yards per game (275.8) than the mighty Crimson Tide. And secondly, third-down conversion rates can have as much of an effect on the defense as it does on the offense that’s failing to make first downs.
It might take an astrophysicist to figure out what the odds are of Georgia and its opponents ending up with the exact same total for time of possession in consecutive weeks these last two games. Whatever they are the Bulldogs had the ball for 25 minutes and 57 seconds against both Tennessee and Alabama. The converse of that is those teams’ offenses kept the ball for more than 34 minutes.
It’s not hard to fathom that both games ended with the same result — a UGA loss.
Likewise, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the Bulldogs need to shore up as they look to pull out of a two-game losing streak with the Missouri Tigers in town. Georgia enters the game 12th in the SEC in time of possession at 26:01 per game and dead last in third-down conversions.
“It’s been a point of emphasis,” Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said midweek. “It starts with first and second down, but we know we’ve got to be able to convert more third downs and have the opportunity to stay on the field.”
The Bulldogs’ problems on third down have as much to do with what they’re doing on first and second down as anything. Early in the year, when they were running over over-matched opponents, they actually weren’t even facing third-down situations very often. In a 52-20 win over South Carolina on Sept. 19, Georgia faced fourth down just four times, and one of those was in the closing seconds when it was simply running out the clock.
But against Alabama and Tennessee, when they were meeting considerably more resistance, poor execution and negative-yardage plays on first and second down often left them in third-and-long situations. More than 60 percent of the time they faced a third down, it was with seven or more yards to go.
Georgia was 3 of 17 (17.6 percent) on third down against Alabama and 4 of 14 (28.6) against Tennessee.
“Way too many times it’s been third-and-long and more times it was third and over 10, either because of a penalty or a negative-yardage play somewhere along the way,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “First and second down is so crucial.”
Said Schottenheimer: “You’re going to get exotic defenses; you’re going to get teams doing multiple things. And sometimes it’s just dropping everybody deep and trying to make you throw the ball underneath.
As one might expect, third downs have been greatly emphasized in the Bulldogs’ practices all week. Quarterback Greyson Lambert said they spent at least one additional period per day working on it.
“We definitely know that’s a point of emphasis for our offense,” said Lambert, a first-year starter. “But we’re not worried about it.”
Lambert has been part of the problem, but not the whole problem. He actually enters Saturday’s game ranked fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency at 158.8 with 9 TDs and 1 interception with a 1,098 yards. He also led the Bulldogs on a 12-play, 72-yard drive in the final 1:48 of the game that included two conversions on third-and-long. Another perfectly-thrown deep ball to Reggie Davis on third-and-nine the previous possession was dropped.
It would appear to be more of a play-selection and execution issue on first and second down.
“I’m not sure what the issue is,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “But I trust the coaches will fix whatever problems we’re having. That’s all I’ve really got to say about that.”
Richt said the Bulldogs identified some specific issues in practice this week but declined to discuss the details. But it sounds as though some general simplification is in the offing.
“We just need to make sure that whatever we call in that situation we can really execute well, that we really understand it well,” Richt said. “I’d rather run the same play two or three times and execute (well) rather than have this scheme and that scheme and not do it as well.
“I think we’re on the right track, but the truth’s in the pudding.”
They’ve got to prove it in a game. This game.
UGA 3RD DOWNS AT TENNESSEE
- 5 – Marshall for 4 yards
- 10 — Lambert incomplete
- 4 – Lambert incomplete
- 10 — Lambert to Michel for 18 yards
- 4 — Lambert incomplete
- 8 – Lambert incomplete
- 7 – Lambert incomplete
- 16 — Lambert complete to Mitchell for 15 yards.
- 12 — Lambert incomplete
- 2 — Lambert complete to Mitchell for 2
- 4 — Lambert incomplete
- 9 — Lambert incomplete (Davis drop)
- 10 — Lambert complete to Godwin
- 10 — Lambert complete to Towns