Coaches always have a thing for third down.
Stay on the field by converting plays into first downs. Get off the field by holding the opponent short of a first down and forcing a punt. It’s the key to every game.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and Ole Miss coach Matt Luke spent a great deal of time discussing the topic in Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference teleconference. Saban’s fear is Luke’s offense and its ability to pile up first downs and points if it stays on the field.
“We’ll face every form of RPOs (run-pass option plays) in the history of ball this week against Ole Miss,” Saban said. “They’ve got a great scheme on offense and they do a really good job of executing it, but I think the thing about their receivers is they’re big, they’re very physical and they’ve got really good speed outside.”
Luke’s fear is Alabama’s ability to convert first downs (the Tide ranks third nationally at 66.7 percent) and get off the field on third downs (Alabama ranks 17th nationally). He also joked that he couldn’t find enough tape to comment on Alabama’s red zone offense and red zone defense because the Tide is never in the red zone).
It all starts with Tua Tagovailoa, who is piling up video game-type numbers after two games. The Tide sophomore signal caller has converted 15 of his 22 possessions into points – dating back to last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship – and is a perfect 10 of 10 for 207 yards and four touchdowns on third-down pass plays this season.
“First of all, he’s very instinctive when it comes to the passing game, when it comes to moving in the pocket, when it comes to keeping his eyes down the field,” Saban said. “And I think those numbers don’t come just because of the quarterback. Obviously, it’s a good plan by the offense, it’s good execution by the protection folks and the route runners. He’s done a good job of hanging in there and throwing it in the right place and being efficient on third down.
“I think it’s important that we continue to have success on that down if we’re going to have success offensively in the future.”
He is the highest rated college quarterback in the nation with a 153.2 NFL passer rating and is the second highest ranked quarterback under pressure (behind Boise State’s Brett Rypien), according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think it starts with all of the tools he has around him,” Luke said. “Good offensive line, good wide receivers, good backs. Obviously, good coaches. Then, him making the decisions. That’s very impressive to me is the decision making. When it does break down, he’s able to extend the play with his feet, keep his eyes downfield, keep his composure. For a young quarterback, I think that’s pretty special.”
He'll have to play even better this week in Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup in Oxford, according to Saban.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Saban said. “It’s going to be challenging for us to go on the road. Everybody needs to step up the level of preparation and performance when you get into league play.”