Fresno State has had some issues defending third-down plays this season, which is a bit of an understatement and, really, something new. The Bulldogs last season were second in the Mountain West in third-down defense and led the conference in 2012, allowing opponents to convert only 36.7% and 33.9% of those plays into first downs. Going into Week 3 of the college football season, though, they were last in the Mountain West and tied for 117th in the nation at 54.3%.
But as much as they struggled, they never had a game like UNLV did in a loss to Northern Illinois on Saturday.
For the Rebels, it was third-and-oh-no to go all night.
Third-and-long, third-and-short, third-and-medium, it didn't matter. Northern Illinois ran the ball, passed the ball and many more times than not it extended drives.
UNLV had to that point allowed opponents to convert only 39.4% (13 of 33) of their third-down plays into first downs, but the Huskies hit on 78.9% (15 of 19) in a 48-34 victory, which sounds ridiculously high.
Only two other Mountain West teams have allowed as many as 15 third-down conversions going back through 2008: Colorado State gave up 15 in 20 plays at Wyoming on Nov. 13, 2012, and San Diego State allowed 15 in 21 plays against Brigham Young on Oct. 17, 2009.
And, across the Group of Five conferences, only two teams have allowed as many as 15 conversions in that same stretch: Middle Tennessee State from Conference USA allowed 17 conversions in 23 third-down plays against East Carolina on Oct. 5, 2013, and Louisiana Tech, then in the Western Athletic Conference and now in Conference USA, allowed 15 in 22 plays at Texas A&M on Oct. 13, 2012.
At UNLV, Northern Illinois converted four of five plays of third-and-7 to 10-plus yards with three pass plays and one run, the only miss a rushing play on third-and-12. The Huskies extended a drive six of seven times when faced with third-and-4 to 6 yards. They were five of seven on third-and-1 to 3 yards.
Asked about the Rebels' defensive effort, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck did a bit of deflecting. "In this day and age, ignore offensive stats," he said. "Ignore them. We had 500 yards (actually, 499) and lost."
Of course, Northern Illinois had 500 yards (actually, 616) -- and won.
Part of that had to be the fact the Rebels just couldn't get the Huskies off the field -- they had a touchdown drive of 15 plays, another of 14 plays and three of 10 plays.
That is a lot of conversions -- and third-down plays -- for just one game. In three games, Air Force has yet to defend even 15 third-down plays; Colorado State and Nevada defended 15 third-down plays only once in three games; and New Mexico and San Jose State haven't had to try to get third-down stops on as many as 15 plays in two games to this point.
By percentage, though, it doesn't even crack the top 10 in the Mountain West since 2008.1, UNLV:
2, New Mexico:
3, San Diego State:
4, Colorado State:
6, Colorado State:
T-9, San Jose State:
T-9, Air Force:
T-9, Brigham Young:
The aftermath: the Rebels, ranked sixth in the conference in third-down defense going into that game, fell all into a tie for 11th and last place with San Jose State.
THIRD-AND-SHORTFresno State UNLV
Fresno State has allowed 10 or more points in eight consecutive quarters and in 11 of 12 this season after Nebraska put up 14, 13, 14 and 14 on them last week.
Through three games, the Bulldogs have surrendered 22 touchdowns.
From 2009 to '13, there have been 22 teams that allowed fewer touchdowns over an entire season:2013:
Utah State allowed minus-25 rushing yards in its victory over Wake Forest, the third best total in school history, and also had two defensive scores in a game for the first time in school history. The Aggies had allowed minus-51 yards against Pacific in 1960 and minus-35 against Pacific in 1967.
It was the first time that Utah State held an opponent to negative rushing yards since 2008, which must have been a good year for rushing defenses.
Three other MW programs last held an opponent to minus rushing yards that year -- Fresno State at San Jose State (31 plays, minus-5 yards), Hawaii against Weber State (26 plays, minus-20 yards) and Nevada against San Jose State (16 plays, minus-23 yards).