Third down hadn’t been kind to Missouri’s offense for more than a month.
Before last Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt, the Tigers hadn’t been better than 35.7 percent on third down in any game since a 38-10 victory Sept. 13 against Central Florida.
Missouri went a combined 12 of 53 on third down, a remarkably poor 22.6 percent, against Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
For the season, Missouri ranks 78th among 125 FBS schools, with a third-down conversion rate of 38.7, but its success rate during those four games would have ranked dead last in the NCAA, even behind Temple — the 125th-ranked team in the nation (23.3 percent).
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Missouri failed to convert 18 consecutive third downs from late in the second quarter at South Carolina until late in the first quarter at Florida, including a zero-for-seven performance in a shutout loss versus Georgia at home.
In SEC play, the Tigers had been a dismal 16 of 53 on third downs, a meager 30.2 percent, but facing the Commodores provided an opportunity to get healthy.
Missouri, 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC, took advantage, going nine of 16 and putting together four drives of 10 plays or more.
“We weren’t putting ourselves in third and long so much,” sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk said. “We were gaining yards every play. A third and 8 or third and 9 versus a third and 1 or third and 2, it’s a big difference.”
Greater success on first and second downs certainly didn’t hurt the Tigers’ third-down production.
Against South Carolina, Missouri was in third and 3 or less three times, while facing third and 8 or more eight times.
The average third-down distance against the Gamecocks was roughly 8 yards, with Mauk going two for 10 for 15 yards with no first downs in third-and-long situations.
It got worse against Georgia, when the Tigers faced third and 5 or more on all seven third-down situations, with an average third-down distance nearly 8.6 yards.
Mauk was zero for five with a sack and an interception on third down.
Missouri converted four of its first six third downs against Florida but finished up going one for the final eight on third down.
The average third-down distance was nearly 8.8 yards, and Mauk was two of seven for 8 yards with one first down.
Things changed against Vanderbilt.
Missouri only faced third and 8 or longer three times and faced third and 4 or less nine times, converting on five chances (all on runs).
“This is a game that we needed to build confidence in our offense and just show everybody that we can move the ball and we can score,” senior wide receiver Bud Sasser said.
Mauk was only two of seven passing on third down, but both completions netted first downs.
Overall, the Tigers average yards to go on third down dipped to 5.4.
“We just executed some,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “We made some plays. I think you give credit to players for making plays, (offensive coordinator) Josh Henson for calling plays.”
Missouri’s third-down struggles had become particularly acute in the fourth quarter during conference play.
The Tigers were zero for eight on fourth-quarter third downs in SEC play before the Vanderbilt game and only one for 13 during that stretch in the second half overall.
Missouri went three of four against Vanderbilt.
“We focused on having long drives, keep moving the chains and just executing on offense,” Murphy said. “I think we did really well on offense (against Vanderbilt).”