LAFAYETTE — The first thing brought up in the coaches meeting after the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team was trounced on the road against Louisiana Tech was the offense’s failure to put itself in position to be successful on third down.
In the 43-14 loss, the Cajuns converted on five of 13 third-down attempts. Breaking that down even further, the Cajuns were 4-of-6 when they faced 6 or fewer yards on third down and 1-of-7 on third-and-7 or longer. That one conversion was an underneath pass that Jamal Robinson turned into 18 yards after a few broken tackles.
The trend in that game is sort of a microcosm of how the year has played out for the Cajuns when they need to get a critical gain to keep a drive alive. Their 38.5 percent conversion percentage is near their season average of 43.4 percent. But break that number down, and it shows a blue print for what the offense needs to do to be successful.
The Cajuns have needed 3 yards or less on third down on 19 occasions this season. They’ve run the ball on 16 of those plays and picked up 15 first downs — a 93.8 percent success rate — while averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
The Cajuns have faced third-and-7 or longer 22 times. While that longer distance inherently makes it harder to pick up, the Cajuns success rate in those situations has been woeful.
They’ve passed the ball 16 times in those situations and have managed two first downs, averaging 9.1 yards per completion. Surprisingly, the Cajuns have just as many conversions running the ball (2-for-6) in those third-and-long situations.
Third-down passing in general has been off the mark. Quarterbacks Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon have combined to connect on just 11 of their 27 pass attempts on third down, a solid majority of those completions coming on check-down routes short of the marker on third-and-long. Only three of those 27 attempts resulted in a first down.
Take the Louisiana Tech game, for instance. Nixon completed four of his seven pass attempts on third-and 7 or longer, and they went for gains of 18 (Robinson’s catch and run on third-and-9, which he caught well short of the sticks), 2, 6, and 3 yards.
This also requires a look at how the Cajuns consistently got themselves into those situations. Twice, they had a third-and-short turned into a third-and-long with a presnap penalty: one for illegal formation, another for delay of game. But more often, it was a case of some curious decisions.
Against Louisiana Tech, the Cajuns called 19 pass plays on first down compared to 11 run plays. That number was particularly skewed in the first half, when the Cajuns called nine pass plays to three run plays.
It worked to perfection sometimes. The first drive of the game resulted in a 49-yard touchdown pass to Elijah McGuire on first down. But it appeared the Cajuns might have dipped into the well a few too many times.
At the end of the night, the Cajuns completed nine of their 18 pass attempts (one play resulted in a drive-killing sack in Louisiana Tech territory) for 109 yards. Twelve of those plays left the Cajuns with second-and-8 or longer.
When they opted to run the ball on first down, the Cajuns picked up 87 yards, had zero negative yardage plays and four that picked up 13 or more yards. The Cajuns were left with second-and-8 or longer on three of those 11 plays.
It’s not as simple as just calling run plays on first down. First down has been the Cajuns most effective passing down this season by a long shot. But with the team consistently working behind the chains as it was Saturday, it makes it difficult to sustain drives. The Cajuns put together two drives of 60 or more yards against Louisiana Tech despite starting, on average, at the 28-yard line.
The evidence paints a clear picture: The Cajuns are a team that simply can’t afford to work behind the yardage markers, or in other words, they can’t put themselves in situations where they have to convert a third-and-long.