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Why third down has become nightmare for BYU

Inability to stop opponents on third down has cost the Cougars dearly, especially in losses to Oregon and Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s Audric Estime runs the ball during the game against BYU at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, 2022.

Notre Dame’s Audric Estime runs the ball during the game against BYU at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, 2022. The BYU defense failed mightily at stopping the Irish on third down, which doomed any chance at a Cougars victory.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Just in time for Halloween, there is a new horror film that features what appears to be an unconquerable beast. Despite herculean efforts and unconventional thinking to thwart its progress, nothing seems to stop it. It just keeps showing up at the worst possible times and it leaves pain and heartache in its wake.

The name of the beast? “Third Down.”

Too big for theaters, this creature only shows up in football stadiums and without an aggressive and well-prepared defense, the ending is always the same — or at least it feels like it.

Welcome to BYU’s nightmare.

Third down is a beast that is beating the Cougars, especially in big games like Notre Dame and Oregon. It’s not rocket science. Failure to get third-down stops leads to a lopsided time of possession which breeds a lopsided scoreboard.

It’s not the “big play” that has put BYU at the threshold of irrelevance after 14 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25, it’s a whole lot of little ones and most of them are on third down.

During Notre Dame’s first touchdown drive in Las Vegas, the Irish converted a third-and-nine with an 11-yard pass. They also converted a third-and-two with a 13-yard pass.

In the second quarter, Notre Dame picked up first downs on four third-down scenarios. On third-and-six, they threw for 12. On third-and-one, they ran for four. On third-and-four, they passed for 11, and on third-and-three, they threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to take an 18-6 lead.

In the third quarter, the Irish faced third-and-13 on their opening drive and threw a 15-yard pass for a first down. On third-and-six, they threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 25-6.

In the fourth quarter, as BYU staged a rally, Notre Dame faced a third-and-five and threw for 12. On third-and-four they ran for five, and on another third-and-four to run out the clock and end the game, they ran for four more.

On the night, the Irish converted 11 of 16 third-down plays. It not only kept BYU’s offense off the field, but it kept the Cougars’ defense on it — and wore them out by more than doubling the time of possession. 

The third-down beast has haunted BYU all season, but especially in the two defeats. When the Cougars played at No. 25 Oregon on Sept. 17, they greatly reduced their chances of winning by losing on third down.

During Oregon’s second-quarter touchdown march, the Ducks faced third-and-one and ran for two. They faced another third-and-one and ran for three, which led to a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.

Later in the quarter, when facing fourth-and-one, Oregon ran for two and when facing fourth-and-two, they ran for eight, which led to another touchdown and a 24-7 lead and the rout was on.

In the third quarter, when facing third-and-goal from the six, the Ducks ran for a touchdown. A few minutes later, on third-and-six, they threw a nine-yard touchdown pass.

The link between the Oregon blowout and the Notre Dame nail-biter is the same — third-down defense. A couple of timely stops against the Ducks probably wouldn’t have determined the outcome. On that day, Oregon was dominating. But the lingering pain from the loss to the Irish is marred by knowing that BYU only needed one or two of those stops on third down to change the game and possibly the end result.

Arkansas (3-3) will take the field Saturday determined to run the football, control the clock and keep Hall on the sideline — the same scenario we saw in Las Vegas. They are big, strong and experienced enough to do it. Third-down execution will determine whether they do.

Through six games, the Razorbacks have a .441 conversion percentage on third down. It’s not near the stunning 68.7% the Irish enjoyed, but it should warrant BYU’s full attention.

For the Cougars to prevent the beast known as “Third Down” from claiming another marquee Saturday moment, they must flip the script in this nightmare by holding their ground, converting their own third downs and turning those first downs into points.

It’s not rocket science, but failure to do it may turn Cougar Nation into mad scientists — just in time for Halloween. If third down is still BYU’s nightmare — it’s going to be a frightening back-half of the season.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

BYU defensive back Micah Harper tackles Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree during the game in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, 2022.

BYU defensive back Micah Harper tackles Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Chris Tyree during the game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. The BYU defense struggled to keep the Irish offense off the field, and it came back to haunt the Cougars.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News