Third down hasn't exactly been the charm for UCLA this season. It has, in fact, been quite the opposite as the Bruins have toiled as one of the worst third-down teams in the country for most of the season.
They stopped their fee fall toward the bottom of the national rankings however, with a stellar third-down performance against in a 31-14 victory over California on Saturday and will look to continue that trend this weekend when Arizona State visits the Rose Bowl.
"Third down has been a thorn for us all year and we really made an emphasis to get off the field," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "Whatever we had to do, we had to stop third downs and the kids really bought into in and now we have to do it two weeks in a row."
The Bruins' third down defense was nearly impeccable against California. The Golden Bears converted only two of 12 third down opportunities. One was a one-yard touchdown on third and goal and another was a 39-yard scramble by quarterback Zach Maynard on third and 10 when the pocket collapsed and Maynard took off.
Other than those two plays, Cal did not gain positive yards on any other third down play. Five went for incomplete passes, two were intercepted passes, two were sacks and one was a rush for zero yards. Cal's average gain on third down was 2.9 yards.
"It seemed like for the first six or seven weeks we couldn't get off the field at all," said linebacker Patrick Larimore. "[Against Cal] we worked hard at that and it paid off because we were able to get out of there and let our offense go to work."
Going into the California game, UCLA ranked No. 118 out of 120 teams in the nation in third down conversion defense. Six of their seven previous opponents this season had converted at least 50 percent of their third down opportunities, including three that converted 60 percent or better.
No team in the country had allowed opponents to convert more third downs than the 61 UCLA had allowed. Their third down defense was so bad that despite the two-for-12 showing against Cal, the Bruins moved up only one spot to No. 117 with a 52.07 stop rate for the season.
Still, it was major progress for a team that seemed to give up big plays on third down no matter the situation. Against Cal, however, the Bruins were equal opportunity enforcers on third down. Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt set the tone early by stuffing Cal running back Isi Sofele on a third and one to force a three-and-out on The Golden Bears' first drive.
The Bruins stopped third-and-one plays twice and also stopped a third and two. Three times, they held on plays of third and 10 or more. Two of the team's three sacks came on third down as did two of Tevin McDonald's three interceptions.
"That will be a major point of emphasis going forward," Tresey said. "We can't expect to be that good on third down every week, but we're sure going to make the effort to be. It's essential to our success the rest of the season."
Stopping third downs is obviously important for any team, but is especially so for UCLA. The Bruins want to run a ball-control offense and use clock management as a weapon. Against California, the Bruins won the time of possession battle by almost six minutes in large part because they forced three three-and-outs against the Golden Bears and continually forced Cal into third and long passing situations.
"By no means are we there yet," Larimore said. "But I can't tell you what a relief it was for us to get those stops. Now the next thing we have to do is back it up. We can't be satisfied just because we had one good game."