Third down has proved particularly vexing for Missouri’s offense in back-to-back losses.
The Tigers, who lost to Florida 21-3 and at Georgia 9-6, are a combined three of 27 converting on third down in the last two games, a paltry 11.1 percent.
“It’s a combination of a lot of different things,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “We practice every third-down situation in every part of the field — the red zone, the plus-5. We practice those third downs and, in the past, we’ve been a pretty good third-down team. Right now, we’re struggling, and that’s a part of the whole offense.”
Missouri ranks 13th in the SEC in third-down conversions at 33.0 percent and averages 16.3 first downs per game, which is 3.4 fewer than any other team in the conference, but the struggles don’t necessarily start on third down.
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“We have to do a better job with those first two downs …,” said senior center and captain Evan Boehm, a Lee’s Summit West graduate. “We have to be more efficient on first down and we have to be more efficient on second down to be more efficient on that third down to keep that ball rolling.”
Missouri faced third and goal at the Gators’ 3-yard line on the opening drive before settling for a field goal and never had fewer than 5 yards to go on any third down the rest of the game.
The Tigers finished the game one of 14 on third down, converting with 36 seconds left on a 12-yard run by Chase Abbington with the outcome decided.
Missouri went two of 13 on third down against the Bulldogs with both conversions coming on a field-goal drive to close the first half.
“We’ve been horrible …,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “Again, it’s execution. I go through every one of those, and I grade them. OK, scheme? Does the play have a chance to work?”
He admitted that, against a good defense, there are bound to be two or three where “I could have put us in a better situation there,” Henson said. “The other 10 or 11, it’s just executing what we’ve got called.”
If there’s a silver lining, the average third-down distance dropped from 8.6 yards against Florida to 6.4 yards against Georgia.
“We’re working real hard at it,” Pinkel said. “I know sometimes it gets frustrating. Trust me, I know that, but we’ve been doing this a long time. Everybody’s got their role to try and get us through it.”
Freshman quarterback Drew Lock is four of 21 for 41 yards on third down in the last two games after going five of nine for 35 yards in those situation in his first start against South Carolina, but he’s not solely to blame.
“There’s no question when this is my block, I’ve got to get the guy blocked,” Henson said. “When it’s my throw, I’ve got to make the throw. When this is my catch, I’m going to make the catch and I’m going to get open on this route and all those kind of things.”
Vanderbilt, which hosts Missouri at 3 p.m. Saturday in Nashville, boasts the best third-down defense in the SEC, allowing opponents to convert only 26.2 percent of the time.
It might be an uphill battle, but the Tigers know improved third-down efficiency could help the offense get untracked.
“We can’t get frustrated,” Henson said. “We’ve just got to stay positive in the face of a lot of adversity and a lot of negativity and keep going out and working hard. You have two choices. You can either do that or you can give up. ... We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to take the second choice. We’re going to fight.”
Pinkel also said more big plays, which would eliminate the need to consistently convert on third down to grind out long drives, are a priority as well.
“I really do believe at some point in time, and I’m hoping it’s this Saturday, we’re going to start clicking and we’re going to get some stuff to start hitting and we’re going to get going,” Henson said.