LSU managing third downs better

LSU leads the Southeastern Conference and is fourth nationally in third-down conversions.

The Tigers have turned 59 percent of their third downs into first downs, which is especially remarkable since last season they converted more than 50 percent of their third downs in just three of 13 games. For the season, they converted just 40 percent.

“I think we’ve put ourselves in better situations,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “Last year a lot of times we’d get behind the sticks early, and it would kind of force our hand to throw the ball.

“Now we’re in the position where we can run or throw the ball, getting into third-and-shorts.”

Landry has been a key player in the third-down improvement as 27 of his 34 receptions have yielded first downs and 13 of the 27 were third-down throws.

LSU has converted more than 50 percent of its third downs in four of its five games. The Tigers demonstrated their improved ability to convert — especially via the pass — right out of the chute.

On the first possession of the season opener against TCU, LSU faced third-and-6, and Zach Mettenberger threw an 8-yard completion to Travin Dural. Later in the drive, Mettenberger threw a 10-yard completion to Landry on third-and-8. Though the drive ended in just a field goal after Mettenberger’s incompletion on third-and-4, LSU’s 2-for-3 success rate on that possession set the tone for a 37-27 victory (13-of-19) and for the season (36-of-61).

“It’s just being in third-and-manageables instead of third-and-long,” Mettenberger said. “We’re able to execute, whether it’s a run or a pass. We’re able to manage down and distance a little better this year.”

A week later in a 56-17 winv over UAB, LSU was 4-of-8 on third downs. And the following week, it was 4-of-6 in a 45-13 victory against Kent State.

The Tigers had their only sub-.500 conversion rate in a 35-21 victory against Auburn two weeks ago, converting just five of 13, though they did convert their first three in building a comfortable lead that was never seriously threatened.

In the 44-41 loss at Georgia last week, LSU converted 10 of 15.

“I think we understand the importance of converting third downs and staying on the field,” tackle La’El Collins said. “We have more confidence in the things we’re trying to get done on the field. We’re trying not to get caught in third-and-long.”

Though LSU has gotten itself into third and relatively short frequently, the average yardage needed for a first down on the 36 third downs the Tigers have converted is 5.3 yards.

Wide receiver Kadron Boone caught a couple of third-down scoring passes from Mettenberger last week, grabbing a 48-yarder on third-and-7 and a 4-yarder on third-and-goal.

“Once we get to third down, Zach has a good feel for what the defense is doing and who will be open,” Boone said. “We’re confident (offensive coordinator Cam Cameron) is going to call a good play and Zach is going to go through his progressions and make good reads. We just have to get open.”

The Tigers have been able to convert four times on third and at least 10 yards. On third-and-20 against Kent State, Mettenberger completed a 21-yard touchdown to Landry.

On third-and-10 against Auburn, Mettenberger completed a 27-yard pass to Landry.

On third-and-10 against Georgia, Mettenberger threw a 25-yard completion to Landry. And on the following possession, Mettenberger converted a third-and-22 with a 25-yard completion to Odell Beckham Jr.

“When we are in third-and-longs, we kind of understand that we have to make a play,” Mettenberger said matter-of-factly. “And I think that third-and-22 was a good example of that.”

The only times LSU converted better than 50 percent of its third downs a year ago was against Washington (7-of-12), South Carolina (11-of-19) and Mississippi State (9-of-15). The Tigers converted 50 percent against North Texas (7-of-14) and Alabama (10-of-20).

The other games featured average to poor performances on third down: 42 percent against Towson (5-of-12), 41 percent against Ole Miss (7-of-17), 40 percent against Idaho (4-of-10) and Arkansas (6-of-15), 33 percent against Auburn (6-of-18), 23 percent against Clemson (3-of-13) 13 percent against Texas A&M (2-of-16) and 8 percent against Florida (1-of-13).

“Any team that gets behind the stick early, it can kill the momentum of a drive,” Landry said. “We want to make it as easy for (Cameron) to call plays as possible. We’ve been doing a great job of getting first downs with our goal-line, two-tight-end offense as well as our three wide-outs.”

Doing better on third downs was one of the points of emphasis when Cameron was brought in to upgrade the offense, especially the passing game.

“We’ve always given great time to third downs,” coach Les Miles said. “I think the play calling and attack is much cleaner. I think any time you get to a third-down situation where there’s run and pass that you have to deal with, it makes both the run and the pass easier and more efficient.”