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Third down remains a bugaboo for Nevada football; here's why

Carson Strong
Carson Strong and the Wolf Pack offense are looking to improve on third downs. (Julian Del Gaudio/Nevada Sports Net)

Last season, Nevada ranked 122nd in the nation in third-down conversion percentage.

Through two games this season, Nevada ranks 122nd in the nation in third-down conversion percentage.

So it appears obvious the Wolf Pack has an issue on third down. But a deeper look at the numbers show it’s really first and second down that has killed Nevada, which hosts Weber State on Saturday at Mackay Stadium.

Yes, Nevada has completed only 8-of-35 third downs, just 23.5 percent (and two of those conversions were because of opponent penalties). But Nevada hasn’t put itself in good position entering third down. On its 35 third downs over its first two games, Nevada’s average distance to gain for a first down has been 7.86 yards.

Oftentimes, the goal of first and second down is to give your offense a manageable third down. Nevada hasn’t done that. The Wolf Pack has faced third-and-10 or longer on 12 of its 35 third downs, giving itself a low probability of gaining the required distance to move the chains. Asked whether it was the early-down issues holding back Nevada’s offense or the third-down efficiency, coach Jay Norvell didn’t pick.

“It’s both,” he said. “Your efficiency has to do on all downs and the more efficient you are on first and second down, the better you are on third down. It’s eliminating the negative play. It’s eliminating the penalty, the sack. The things that kill you on converting on third down is getting behind the chains. That one thing we have to clean up is the penalties. We can’t get a false start and have first-and-15. We can’t get a minus-yardage play, a sack. Those things we have to eliminate. As we do that, we’ll start improving on third down.”

Putting itself behind the chains has been an issue for the Wolf Pack, but so has converting those manageable third downs. Nevada is only 2-of-8 converting third-and-four or less and 3-of-13 converting third-and-five or less, so it hasn’t been effective in third-and-short, either.

Norvell said it wasn’t fair to pin the third-down issues on any one part of the offense, with the offensive line, the quarterback play and the wide receivers all taking a share of the blame.

“The other part is having confidence in our protection and our quarterback play on third down really has to improve,” Norvell said. “We didn't do a very good job at the receiver position of getting open this last game (against Oregon). We got challenged in man coverage. Our route running has to be a lot better to help Carson (Strong) out, our protection needs to be better and then he has to be more accurate. He made some poor throws. He had some guys open and that’s something he'll learn from as a younger player. He does a good job of seeing things and making adjustments. It’s a combination of all of that really.”

Nevada has been good on fourth down this season, converting 4-of-5 opportunities there, including 2-of-3 against Oregon. But the Wolf Pack’s offense has failed to get a first down on 16 of its 28 possessions, more than 57 percent of its drives.

“We can’t go out there and go three-and-out and keep putting the defense in that position,” Norvell said. “We had three drives where we turned it over on the very first play offensively (against Oregon). You can’t keep throwing your defense back out there like that. That’s not good football.”

After opening with Power 5 opponents Purdue and Oregon, Nevada’s schedule eases up moving forward with games against FCS opponent Weber State and FBS doormat UTEP to close non-conference play. This weekend’s contest against Weber State, however, won’t be an easy one for the offense. The Wildcats ranked second in the FCS last year in scoring defense and held San Diego State, which is a Mountain West team like Nevada, to just six points in this year's season opener.

If the Wolf Pack is going to make gains offensively, improving on third down is a must.

“It’s something we have to be good at,” Norvell said. “Taking care of the ball and being good on third down are key stats we have to be good at if we’re going to have a good offensive team.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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