Editors Note: We discussed much of this on the Radio Hour-ish last night, but I wanted to get up the main points of the discussion in written format here.
While all of the attention has been focusing on the struggles we have had on the offensive side of the ball, particularly with the passing game, short shrift has been given to an issue lurking on the defensive side of the ball, namely third down defense. While it has generated very little (read almost zero) attention, third down defense has been a liability the past couple of weekends.
In the first six games of the season, our third down defense was nothing short of outstanding, holding opponents to a mere 19 of 79 on third down, i.e. 24% percent. The only team that generated any real success on third down against us FIU (41%), and once you factor out that game opponents were only converting on third down 19% of the time. Virginia Tech, Arkansas, and Ole Miss, for example, combined to convert only four third downs against the Tide.
Unfortunately, the past two weeks haven't been near as rosy. Despite consistently finding itself in third and long situations, South Carolina nevertheless managed to convert on 9 of 19 third downs, i.e. 47%. A week later against Tennessee, it was much of the same situation, with the Vols converting on 6 of 15 third downs, i.e. 40%.
So why has that happened?
First and foremost, we probably do need to look in the mirror a bit with our pass rush. Losing Dont'a Hightower is something we have yet to overcome, and it probably shows most on third down. Initially the role of replacing Hightower as an end in the Rabbit package went to Courtney Upshaw, and while Upshaw didn't necessarily play poorly, he really didn't make any plays either. He didn't register a single sack or tackle for loss against either Ole Miss or South Carolina, and for whatever reason he didn't really play against Tennessee (some people speculated he dinged a shoulder on a kick return). In Upshaw's place for Tennessee we saw Chavis Williams, who was really more of the same. Williams didn't necessarily play poorly, but again he didn't really make an impact either (as evidenced by his zero sacks and zero hurries).
Beyond that, however, there are a couple of other legitimate reasons for the struggles on third down. We have faced better competition in a sense the past few weeks, and credit should clearly be given to both Stephen Garcia and Jonathon Crompton. Both of those guys played well and made some very good throws on third down, and nothing here should be interpreted as to denigrate their performances. That was something that we really didn't have to deal with against the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Nathan Lane, Mike Hartline, or Jevan Snead. Furthermore, the absence of Javier Arenas against South Carolina clearly hurt as well. Tyrone King played well in Arenas' absence, but even so Arenas is a high-end cornerback and there was a drop-off in production in his absense.
Furthermore, without trying to come off sounding like a crybaby (read Lane Kiffin), for all of the talk of their being a 'Bama-Florida conspiracy with regard to the SEC officials, officiating has killed us the past three weeks. Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee combined to throw 127 passes against us, and ran approximately 140 passing plays against us. Anyone care to venture on those 140 or so passing plays how many times one of those teams was called for holding? One time. One offensive holding penalty in approximately 140 passing plays. Unreal stuff.
For now, the biggest thing we can probably do to try to fix this -- aside from praying to the Football Gods that the SEC officials start being more strict on holding penalties against our defense -- is to improve the pass rush on third down. We've tried both Upshaw and Williams at the position, and it looks like we will possibly be changing things up more this weekend. Jerrell Harris has been moved back to outside linebacker this week, and he has been taking snaps as a defensive end in our long-yardage packages. Perhaps he is the answer, perhaps not, but we do need to get better in that regard.
Now obviously this is a very small sample size here, so hopefully this is just a statistical blip that we will take care of against LSU. Either way, it's a problem that clearly has to be fixed. P.J. Fitzgerald's almost complete and total inability to pin opponents up deep -- 25% of Fitzgerald's punts this year have ended in touchbacks -- mixed with our defense's inability the past two weeks to get off the field on third down has clearly hurt us in recent weeks. With LSU coming to town, featuring loads of elite playmakers at the offensive skill positions plus a legitimate dual threat quarterback, we need to find a solution before this weekend. In what figures to be a close game, it could be the difference between victory and defeat.