Montana State’s defense jogs off the field. The punt return team comes on.
That means the Bobcats did their job and kept their opponent from converting on third down. MSU defensive lineman Marcus Ferriter loves that feeling.
He knew his coaches stressed third-down success in the offseason. After ranking 10th in the Big Sky in that area last season, MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane came in with that being one of his top priorities.
What he’s done has worked. The No. 6-ranked Bobcats (5-1, 2-0 Big Sky) are third in the conference in opposing third-down conversion rate at 33% despite facing the most third downs with 99.
That will continue to be important as the Bobcats host Sacramento State (3-2, 1-0) which is fourth in the Big Sky with a 42.9% third-down conversion rate on offense going into MSU’s homecoming game 2 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
“It’s just a mindset,” MSU safety JoJo Henderson said. “We call it the money down because that’s where the money is made. It defines a defense being able to get off the field. More or less, the defense has garnered that mindset that third down is our last down on the field.”
MSU head coach Jeff Choate specifically planned parts of fall camp to practice third-down situations. He spoke often during the offseason about how that area needed to improve.
The Bobcats are last in the conference in offensive third-down conversion rate at 32.6%. But because of the defensive success, they can afford to punt and hope for better field position instead of having to go for it on fourth out of desperation.
“Clearly the experience does help,” Choate said. “Those guys are seeing the importance of that particular statistic in terms of our ability to have success.”
Ferriter said success on third down begins with first and second down, which to him is based on stopping the run. That usually then forces opponents into third-and-long scenarios.
“Our guys understand that we have to get off the field in order for us to be successful not only as a defense but overall as a team,” Ioane said. “There’s a heightened sense of awareness of how much we’ve got to execute those situations and those downs, and our guys are doing a really good job of that as far as the execution.”
To Ioane, pressure up front is the most important part of third downs. The best pass coverage, he said, is a result of a four-man rush. If the Bobcats don’t have to blitz too many players, then the secondary can tighten passing windows.
Early on in games, the Bobcats haven’t blitzed often. That’s possible in part because of senior defensive end Bryce Sterk, who is second in the country with 8.5 sacks to go with three more QB hurries.
But if the Bobcats limit what opponents do on the first two downs, they can be aggressive on third.
As games have gone on, Ioane has dialed up blitzes from every level. Safeties Jahque Alleyne and Henderson both have sacks, and Brayden Konkol has a QB hurry which resulted in an interception against Northern Arizona.
Henderson loves the trust Ioane has shown in his secondary. By blitzing and sending the front seven at the quarterback, the cornerbacks and safeties are alone in coverage but likely have to cover for less time.
Henderson said the DBs feel they need to cover for just three to four seconds. By then, someone on MSU’s defensive front seven has reached the quarterback.
So if MSU’s defensive backfield can do its job for that long, Henderson said, it should result in an interception or sack.
“(Ioane) trusts us,” Henderson said, “which I think is awesome because, perhaps in the past, we haven’t had the ability to cover for an extended amount of time in the back end or we haven’t had the tools to get to the quarterback on third and seven-plus.”
Before every third down, someone on MSU’s sideline raises a giant sign with a dollar symbol on it. Ferriter isn’t even sure who’s in charge of it. Henderson believes it’s an equipment manager.
Whoever it is, Henderson said, has been doing a great job because that’s the first thing his teammates see when they turn to their coaches for the play call.
Not that they needed a reminder. They know how valuable that moment is.
“It’s just the money-down mentality. It’s like our pay day,” Ferriter said. “We work all week for the opponent. So it’s our time to shine.”