Tulane at Temple: Guerry Smith goes Next Level on why third down will be so important _lowres

Associated Press photo by GRETCHEN ERTL -- Temple running back Jahad Thomas averages 125.75 yards per game and has scored six touchdowns.

Next Level: Tulane-Temple tussle could be determined by third-down success

Aside from the record and recent reputation, the biggest difference between Temple and Tulane this year is on third downs.

The Owls are very good. The Green Wave? Not so much.

Temple ranks 38th nationally in third-down conversions at 43.1 percent, and the number improves to 60.6 percent on third-and-7 or shorter.

Temple is even better on third downs defensively, ranking 18th while holding opponents to a 27.6 percent success rate.

By staying on the field offensively and getting off the field quickly defensively, the Owls have worn down opponents. They outscored Penn State 20-0 in the second half.

Tulane’s offense converts 36.7 percent of its third downs, which ranks only 88th nationally. The defense is even worse, allowing opponents to convert on 43.1 percent, placing the Wave 99th nationally.

“The offense has to get down to third-and-2 and third-and-3,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “The defense has to get them in third-and-10, and then our numbers will come back down. We have to make sure we’re doing the right things on first and second down to get us to a manageable third down.”

Maybe, but Tulane’s offense has struggled several times on third-and-1, starting with the opening series of the year against Duke when Lazedrick Thompson was stuffed in the backfield. In the UCF game, the Wave was held for no gain all three times it needed a yard for a first down.

The defense allowed the Knights to get first downs on third-and-15 and third-and-20 in the first half. Duke converted a third-and-13, and Georgia Tech scored on third-and-goal from the 13.

Last year, Tulane and Temple were a combined 3-for-30 on third downs in their matchup. The Owls have improved dramatically since then.

Tulane needs its best third-down performance of the year to pull an upset.

Four Downs

1. Taking away the run

Tulane will want to stop the run to make Temple one-dimensional. The Owls’ Jahad Thomas has rushed for more than 100 yards three times, and quarterback P.J. Walker has thrown for more than 143 yards just once. The Wave held UCF’s running backs to 11 yards on 14 carries last week.

2. Recalling History

Tulane’s biggest road wins of the past five years came at Rutgers (17-14) in 2010 and Houston (31-24) last year. Both times the Wave was a 17-point underdog. Temple, which is on the verge of the top 25 in the AP poll, opened as a 161/2-point favorite. That’s right in range with Tulane’s previous upsets.

3. Big-play offense

Tulane has made life easier by getting huge chunks of yardage in the past two weeks, with three runs of 46 yards or more and four receptions of 40 yards or longer, including two by receiver Teddy Veal. The Wave could use more of those against Temple’s sturdy defense, which rarely allows lengthy drives.

4. Turnover terrors

Only three teams caused more turnovers than Tulane from the start of 2013 until the end of 2014 (Houston, TCU and Louisiana Tech), and the Wave was at it again versus UCF, forcing five. Temple has been similarly opportunistic, getting five to beat Cincinnati while being outgained 557-296.