Knights 1st-rate on 3rd down
Avoiding negative plays, reliance on smart QB eases hunt for yardage
Few teams have been as efficient with the football on third down as UCF.
The Knights have converted 59 percent of their third downs this season (39 of 66), which ranks No. 2 in the country entering this week behind only NC State (60.87 percent).
“To be honest, it all starts on first and second down,” UCF firstyear coach Josh Heupel said. “We have very few negative plays that allow you to be in mostly manageable situations. When you have a really good quarterback, that helps you convert on third downs because he’s going to make smart decisions with the football.
“It starts up front and being in manageable situations, being productive with the football on first and second downs and being in short yardage situations.”
No. 10 UCF (5-0, 2-0 AAC) looks to continue that trend this weekend as the Knights travel to Memphis to take on the Tigers (4-2, 1-2 AAC) at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Saturday. The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcast regionally on ABC or ESPN2.
The Knights have converted 65 percent of their third-down attempts spanning five or fewer yards (22 of 34) and 53 percent of third-down attempts (17 of 32) spanning at least six yards.
Last week against SMU, UCF was 2 of 6 (33 percent) on third downs of five or fewer yards and 6 of 10 (60 percent) on third downs of at least six yards. Two of those conversions resulted in touchdowns: a 15-yard run by Adrian Killins and a 14-yard pass from quarterback McKenzie Milton to
“I think the coaches have done a great job in game prepping and knowing what we’re going to expect on third down,” Milton said of the team’s ability to convert on third downs. “First and second down dictates what you're doing on third. If you get negatives on first and second [downs] and put yourself in third-and-sevenpluses, it’s hard to convert.”
Milton is 19-of-31 passing (61 percent) for 352 yards with three touchdowns and an interception on third downs this season. He’s also rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on 10 third-down carries.
“Honestly, we just try to score every time we touch the ball. That’s my mindset — to try to score,” Snelson said.
Senior left tackle Wyatt Miller knows how critical those early downs can be for the offense tries to get something going.
“The thing about third-down conversions is like what coach Heupel says, you're not going to put yourself in a bad situation if you've done your job well on first and second down and that's what we take pride in,” Miller said. “So when it comes down to third down, we want third-and-three or third-and-two or third-and-one and we’re going to set ourselves up to be successful.”
Adds receiver Tre Nixon, “You know, just executing the plays to the highest level, that's what it ultimately comes down to.”
Thirteen times this season, UCF has faced a third down of at least 10 yards, with the Knights converting five of those attempts (38 percent).
Memphis ranks ninth in the American Athletic Conference in third-down defense after allowing opponents to convert more than 43 percent on third downs this season. The Tigers have twice allowed teams to convert more than 50 percent of the time (South Alabama, Tulane).
Meanwhile, the Knights have held teams to a 38 percent conversion rate on third down.
For Miller and the Knights, it’s all about getting early yards.
“If we do our job on first or second down, it doesn’t put that stress on us on third down,” he said. “But even if we put ourselves in those situations, it’s just a job. Us dialing it to what needs to be done and how we execute.”
UCF’s McKenzie Milton drops back to pass against SMU. Milton and the Knights are among the nation’s leaders in third-down conversions.