Third-down defense must improve for Rebels

HOUSTON

I once covered a college football coach who thought third-down conversion percentage was one of the most overrated statistics on offense.

The reasoning: If his team’s up-tempo attack could gain enough on first and second down, moving the chains at a rapid pace, the third-down numbers might not always tell the true story of a team’s success on the scoreboard.

Maybe.

It’s not a ridiculous point.

The coach was a bit of a lunatic — I’m not sure the guy ever removed his sunglasses, even indoors — but his view had a small amount of validity.

He was also smart enough never to make the same conclusion about defense.

If you can’t get good people off the field, you have less of a chance to win games than Roger Goodell being named Commissioner of the Year in professional sports. It’s true at all levels, and any nonbelievers should watch a replay of the San Diego Chargers beating the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

UNLV hasn’t been able to get good people off the field this season. Thus, the results have been predictable.

The Rebels need to solve what is a glaring weakness quickly, as in tonight at TDECU Stadium against Houston, or a 1-2 record will be 1-3 long before the final seconds elapse.

“I always worry about the defense,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “At this point in college football, you don’t worry too much about statistics, but we’re just not making the plays we need to get the ball back. We work on it every week. It’s not like we’re just hoping it goes away. Eventually, you just have to prove you’re good enough. I’m really fired up right now about how poorly we have played on third down.”

To the level of Chicago burning in 1871.

Consider: UNLV has played two quality opponents (beating mighty Northern Colorado 13-12 doesn’t count) and lost both games by an average score of 52-24. The Rebels were more competitive against Northern Illinois than Arizona, but neither time were they competent defensively on third down.

In the losses, UNLV has allowed a combined third-down conversation rate of 26 for 40.

That’s an astonishing 65 percent.

For any defense, that’s horrendous.

The Rebels weren’t terrific on third down last year, allowing opponents to convert 48 percent of the time in a season that saw UNLV win seven games and advance to a bowl.

But things have been especially dire early this season, and it’s not as if UNLV has the sort of quality defensive depth that would allow it to remain on the field for several long drives and not eventually pay for it.

“I know these are fixable problems,” senior defensive back Kenneth Penny said. “We’ve played some up-tempo teams, and to continue getting stops on first and second down but not on third, it’s very frustrating. We need to get our offense back on the field.”

Football on either side begins up front, and this is where UNLV’s ineptitude trying to contain opposing quarterbacks has shown most. The Rebels simply can’t get off blocks well enough to stop those with quick feet and sound instincts.

UNLV just isn’t physical enough or technical enough or tough enough or something enough.

Anu Solomon rushed for 50 yards in Arizona’s blowout win of UNLV, and Drew Hare went for 74 in Northern Illinois’ victory, quarterbacks whose scrambling ways on third down extended drives that led to touchdowns.

Tonight, Houston sophomore quarterback John O’Korn presents a different challenge.

He doesn’t beat you on the ground when a play breaks down (O’Korn has just 16 rushes for a net of minus-7 yards with a long gain of 5 in three games), but rather by avoiding pressure and making plays down the field with the pass.

He did so often against Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, completing 30 of 52 for 307 yards and three scores in a 33-25 loss.

“(O’Korn) has a really good feel for the pocket, but it’s still all about us getting off those blocks,” Hauck said. “What we have done on third down defensively is unacceptable. I’m not down on our guys. I still think we can be good enough and get the job done. But this is something I believe cost us the (Northern Illinois) game.

“We have to mix our coverages, and if we choose to cover versus bringing a lot of pressure, we still need to get the quarterback on the ground before he makes a play. We can’t keep letting quarterbacks make plays on third down.”

The lunatic in the sunglasses never really concerned himself with third-down defense.

UNLV better, and quick.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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