Oklahoma football: Third down has been kryptonite to Sooners late this season

Sep 17, 2022; Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Oklahoma Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby speaks with head coach Brent Venables before the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2022; Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Oklahoma Sooners offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby speaks with head coach Brent Venables before the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /
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“Third time’s a charm” is not an expression that has served Oklahoma football well lately.

It isn’t as if third down has been a problem the entire season, but it has been an area of concern on both offense and defense at various times throughout the season. And in the past two weeks, it has become a problem of huge proportions on the offensive side.

In Oklahoma’s past two games at West Virginia and at home against in-state rival Oklahoma State, the Sooners have successfully converted on third down on just 2 of 25 attempts. That is a horrific conversion percentage of 8.0 percent.

What’s really troubling is that the recent third-down ineptness has come about so suddenly. Through the first eight games of the season, OU was converting on third down almost 46 percent of the time. That figure is now down to 40 percent, which is tied for 56th among FBS teams.

One way to avoid third-down distress is to avoid it all together, which is what Oklahoma did to start the game with Oklahoma State. The Sooners had six consecutive drives to start the game without ever reaching a third-down possession. But then bookended on the other end of that same game were six consecutive OU possessions to finish the contest, every one ending in a three-and-out.

Brent Venables explanation in the postgame interview session after the Bedlam win was that the offense needs to perform better on first and second down to put itself in a more manageable position on third down. That is the off-the-shelf answer, but the truth with Oklahoma in the Oklahoma State game last weekend was that most of the third-down failures were with five or fewer yards to go for a first down.

"“It was a different position group and different person in every single (third down) scenario,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said of the third-down failures in the Oklahoma State game. “I think maybe that’s the most frustrating part.”"

You can imagine how frustrating the Sooners’ third-down struggles have been to Venables, Lebby and the coaching staff, but that frustration is equally shared among the OU offensive players.

"“If you’re not executing on first and second down, it’s the same as third down,” said quarterback Dillon Gabriel. “You have to execute, point blank.”"

The Sooners head to Texas Tech this Thanksgiving weekend, where they probably aren’t going to find much relief from their recent third-down woes. Converting on third downs is a critical part of staying on the field and sustaining drives. Texas Tech ranks 65th nationally in third-down defense.

The OU offense is going to need to be much better on third downs against the Red Raiders, who have an offense that can strike quickly from all over the field and light up the scoreboard. You don’t want to give Texas Tech any more offensive possessions than necessary.

While the Sooners will focus on third-down improvement on offense, they also will need to capitalize on Texas Tech’s similar struggles ion third down. The Red Raiders are last in the Big 12 and 96th nationally in third-down conversions with a success rate of only 36 percent.