ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Patient to doctor: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor to patient: “Don’t do that.”
Sure, it’s a joke older than Vaudeville itself and doesn’t even deserve a rim shot. But from a UNM football standpoint, how great would it be if the cure for what ails the Lobos were that simple?
What does ail the Lobos isn’t a simple matter at all. But if there’s one thing in particular that hurts when they do it — or don’t — it’s third down.
In the Lobos’ first two games, they faced 29 third-down situations and converted only five. Their opponents were 17-of-33.
Last Saturday against Tulsa, the Lobos were a beyond-atrocious 1-of-15 on third down. The Golden Hurricane were 8-of-17.
Other than the numbers on the scoreboard, those are as significant as any in determining why UNM is 0-2 and off to such a wobbly start in the Mike Locksley era.
Tuesday, at UNM’s weekly media get-together, Locksley talked about the need to somehow manufacture big plays on offense. That’s certainly near the top of the to-do list, since the Lobos’ longest play from scrimmage thus far is 29 yards.
Not making the little plays on third down, though, has hurt as well — on either side of the ball.
Repeatedly, after both the Tulsa game and the season opener at Texas A&M, Locksley said the UNM defense played far better than the score might suggest. The Lobo offense couldn’t convert third downs, he pointed out, forcing the defense to be on the field for 90 plays against A&M and for 80 against Tulsa. Against such an onslaught, even Cal Ripken Jr. would have worn down.
But, last Tuesday, Locksley also took note of his defense’s struggles on third down.
“(Opponents) are converting at a 51-percent rate on third down, which is unbelievable,” he said. “…. Some of them were in third-and-long situations where (the defense) supposedly has the advantage.”
Certainly, UNM was a study in third-down breakdowns against Tulsa.
It started early. On the Lobos’ first offensive series, the Lobos faced a third-and-7. A Donovan Porterie-to-Ty Kirk pass gained 6 yards. Punt.
Later in the first quarter, UNM faced a third-and-2 at its own 36-yard line. A Porterie-to-Victor James pass gained a single yard.
Punt? Not yet. Locksley chose to go for it on fourth down this time, a semi-desperation move that paid off. Demond Dennis got the first down, and more, with a 10-yard run.
Three plays later, though, on a third-and-2 from the Tulsa 45, Golden Hurricane rover back James Lockett came unblocked and blind-sided Porterie with a spine-tingling hit I could feel from the press box. Punt.
Defensively, UNM’s third-down problems didn’t really surface until Tulsa’s final series of the first half. On an 11-play, 56-yard drive, the Golden Hurricane converted a third-and-5, a third-and-6 and, finally, a third-and-goal from the 2.
Then, on the first offensive series of the second half, 5-foot-8 Tulsa wide receiver Damaris Johnson outleaped the UNM secondary to complete a 36-yard pass play on third-and-13. The Golden Hurricane scored a touchdown three plays later and led 23-3.
After that, the only down that mattered was too far down.
It should be noted that, last season, Tulsa led the nation in third-down conversion percentage.
And was it all about third down? No. Tulsa didn’t even face a third down during 25- and 37-yard mini-drives for its final two touchdowns against a tiring defense.
Still, the number of third downs Tulsa did face — 17 — suggests the Golden Hurricane weren’t running and passing at will on first and second. A few stops on third down could have dramatically changed, if not the outcome, at least the margin of defeat.
As for the Lobos’ third-down conversion percentage against the Golden Hurricane — .067 — well, it really hurts when they do that.