TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There aren’t that many statistics that Nick Saban pays a lot of attention to, but third-down conversions is one of them. Outside of turnovers, it might be the first thing the coach looks at in the game summary.
It’s emphasized. It’s a priority. It’s an attitude.
“Extremely important,” senior tight end Hale Hentges, “ but is something that’s overlooked a lot.”
So far it’s been huge for the Crimson Tide, on both sides of the ball.
During the first two games of the 2018 season the offense was 10 of 15 against both Louisville and Arkansas State, 20-for-30, 66.7 percent overall. It leads the SEC in that category and is tied for third nationally (trailing only Ohio State and Louisiana).
Alabama has also scored seven of its 12 touchdowns on third downs, including five against the Red Wolves. Among them were the 58-yard touchdown off a slant route by sophomore Jerry Jeudy and the 41-yard score by sophomore wide receiver DeVonta Smith.
It showed “Just how explosive the offense is,” Smith said.
Sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has yet to have an incompletion on third down. He’s 10-for-10 for 207 yards, with four touchdowns.
So far his favorite targets on the down have been Jeudy with three catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, and Smith with two receptions for 67 yards and the one score. But he’s already connected with seven different receivers on third downs.
In comparison, junior quarterback Jalen Hurts has two completions on third downs and both were to Smith (for 57 yards).
“Tua is pretty instinctive in terms of the passing game,” Saban said after the 57-7 victory over Arkansas State. “I think he sees things really well. I think a good example was they ran a corner cat where the safety didn't cover the X and he wasn't even supposed to be reading that side of the field and he was protected on the play. It wasn't hot and he throws the ball to Smitty for a touchdown.
“He does a nice job of keeping his eyes downfield, stepping up in the pocket. There's a couple of third-down plays where he bought some time, stepped up in the pocket and we're able to convert on throws. He's well prepared but he's also very instinctive.”
Meanwhile, the defense is 8-for-33, 24.24 percent. It’s fourth in the league and tied for 17thin the FBS.
“We really look it as it’s our time to really buckle down and give our offense the ball back, like this is our moment,” sophomore nose tackle Quinnen Williams said. “It’s like our fourth-and-goal type moment.”
On two of the three touchdowns Alabama has yielded so far the opposing team was able to sustain a drive because the Crimson Tide couldn’t make the necessary stop on a key down.
Penalties were the main culprit during the Louisville drive, with flags on both third-and-26 and fourth-and-13 causing Saban to temporarily lose his mind on the sideline.
Against Arkansas State, which runs the same style of offense as Saturday’s opponent Ole Miss (6 p.m., ESPN), the Red Wolves converted on third-and-8 at midfield with quarterback Justice Hansen running 10 yards for the first down.
“When you play these kinds of teams you want to get off the field on third down and when we didn’t that’s when they scored,” Saban said. “What it does is when you’re playing a tempo team and they make a first down it keeps your guys out there longer and they can create another situation. To get off the field on third downs is critical.”
It always has been.
Since 1970, Alabama’s been above 50 percent offensively in third-down conversions only four times, 2014 and the other three were all between 1972-78. The 1973 team has the unofficial team record at 52 percent.
“We’re always trying to get to that 45 percent or 50 percent mark and when we do that we have a lot of success,” Hentges said.
Defensively, the 1992 national champions have the mark to beat, 22 percent. The Crimson Tide has been under 30 percent 16 times during the same period.
Alabama’s third-down success
Year Offense; Defense
2007 75-198 (38); 82-203 (40)
2008 76-183 (42); 56-199 (28)
2009 76-194 (39); 58-194 (30)
2010 67-150 (45); 65-191 (34)
2011 78-167 (47); 45-184 (24)
2012 80-167 (48); 61-190 (32)
2013 70-147 (48); 61-176 (35)
2014 102-198 (52); 82-217 (38)
2015 80-214 (37); 65-227 (29)
2016 91-208 (44); 73-238 (31)
2017 72-178 (40); 74-214 (35)
Consequently, it’s not just a statistical category that the Crimson Tide has to do well in against the Rebels, but almost has to win.
Since the Hugh Freeze/Matt Luke era began in 2012, the only time Ole Miss was better on third downs the Rebels won the game (2014).
Third downs vs. Ole Miss
Year, Alabama, Opponent, Result
2012 11-18, 8-17 Won 33-14
2013 8-17, 4-14, Won 25-0
2014 6-16, 6-14, Lost 23-17
2015 11-20, 4-14, Lost 43-37
2016 7-15, 5-15, Won 48-43
2017 7-15, 0-13, Won 66-3
Momentum can be everything, especially with an up-tempo opponent. Once the offense gets the defense on its heels it can be extremely difficult to turn around.
Conversely, the same can in true for a defense. Once it establishes itself on third down, the coaches can bring pressure from different places and make an offense just miserable.
“It’s a great feeling, because when you get momentum it’s hard to stop,” sophomore safety Xavier McKinney said. “I feel like our defense plays better every time we get a stop or make a big play.”