PROVO When BYU's offense finds itself in a third-down situation, it has opposing defenses right where it wants them.
The Cougars are No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage converting an astounding 32 of 41 third-down chances this season (78.1 percent). By comparison, Penn State is No. 2 (27 of 41 for 65.9 percent) and Ball State is No. 3 (17 of 29 for 58.6 percent).
In 2007, BYU was 88 of 195 on third down (45 percent).
It should come as little surprise that logging a high conversion rate on third down is by design. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae works on third-down situations with his players every day.
"It's something we practice all the time. It's something that coach Anae has really installed into our minds that we have to be good at and efficient at to win football games," quarterback Max Hall said.
"In practice, he gives us third-down situations all the time and makes us convert. I just think it's really translating over to the games. It almost becomes easier in the games as we practice and practice."
In BYU's 59-0 rout of UCLA, the Cougars went 13 of 17 on third down, including 8 of 9 in the first half.
Four of those third-down situations occurred on one drive, following a field goal block in the second quarter. On third-and-10 from the UCLA 48, Hall completed a 13-yard pass to Austin Collie. On third-and-10 from the UCLA 35, Hall hit Michael Reed for 15 yards. On third-and-1 from the UCLA 11, the Cougars drew a 5-yard delay of game penalty, but one play later, on third-and-6 from the UCLA 16, Hall connected with Andrew George for seven yards. Finally, on third-and-2 from the UCLA 2, Hall threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta to cap the drive and lift BYU to an overwhelming 42-0 advantage.
"It's phenomenal in terms of third down," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "We have a unique structure to practice it. The offense has done an outstanding job of knowing exactly where the ball should go in those situations and to whom. The precision on that down has allowed us to move the chains at an unparalleled level.
"If I was a defensive coach playing against it, there's only so much you can do to continue to keep your defense motivated after third down after third down is converted. Then you have to start trying to guess your way into making plays. When you guess, frequently, you give up points."
OFF THE BENCH: Leading 49-0 midway through the third quarter against UCLA, BYU started replacing the starters with reserves. Yet even with second- and third-stringers, the Cougar offense added 10 more points and the defense preserved a shutout.
Quarterback Brenden Gaskins completed 4-of-5 passes for 66 yards and led a pair of scoring drives, while running back J.J. DiLuigi rushed seven times for 34 yards.
"It fired me up to see Gaskins go out there and complete some balls and have a touchdown drive and a field goal drive," Hall said. "For everyone to get in there and play with passion, even though the score was 50-0 or whatever, they were playing like it was the first series of the game."
Backup defensive lineman Matt Putnam recorded BYU's first interception of the season when he picked off Bruin QB Kevin Craft and returned it 9 yards to the UCLA 16. The Cougars scored two plays later.
Receiving playing time increases the backups' overall morale.
"It's great to have a chance to contribute, and so many of those players were anxious for their chance," Mendenhall said. "Certainly, they were feeling part of the team, but that's not the same as being out there in the stadium, competing against the No. 1 offense or defense for UCLA.
"When those backups went in, they were competing to hold the lead, widen the lead and also prevent a score. They did so admirably, with very little experience. I liked what I saw in terms of the next wave of BYU players. It was fun for us (as a coaching staff) to reward them."
LEARNING A NEW POSITION: BYU freshman linebacker Iona Pritchard entered the first half of Saturday's game as a fullback, catching one pass for three yards. Mendenhall explained that Pritchard is still Matt Bauman's backup at middle linebacker, but the Bingham High product is one of a few Cougars auditioning at fullback.
"Since we lost (fullback) Manase Tonga (who was suspended for the season last June) and in looking for another fullback, Iona is doing such a nice job of handling his workload defensively, that we thought he could have five minutes of work during each offensive team period to help us with the fullback spot because he is physical and he is fast and he is handling his role on defense and special teams well," Mendenhall said."He had maybe 15 minutes of work offensively last week. In those 15 minutes, we saw all the things we needed to see. He's a natural there and he'll be able to play a role similar to that the rest of the year. He'll still spend 90-plus percent of his time defensively and on special teams, but playing a role offensively as a lead blocker or catching the ball out of the backfield."