Replying to Australia's 492 for nine declared in ideal batting conditions, England lost Alastair Cook for 25, Joe Root (68) and Jonathan Trott (40) to leave their hopes of winning a home Ashes series 4-0 for the first time hanging by a thread.
An unusually subdued Kevin Pietersen reached the interval on 29 not out and Ian Bell was on four with England still trailing the touring side by 311 runs.
Cook and Root, who resumed on 32 for no wicket, batted cautiously through the first hour under clear blue skies against tidy but largely unthreatening fast bowling.
Root produced two neat wristy flicks to the mid-wicket boundary and Cook drove Ryan Harris square for four but runs were generally hard to come by.
The pair had taken their opening partnership to 68, England's best of the series, when three balls after the drinks break Cook nibbled at a wide ball from Harris and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin took a diving catch.
The England captain swished his bat in frustration as his disappointing series continued and his dismissal sent Root into his shell.
The 22-year-old failed to score a run off 19 balls in a row but he pulled Peter Siddle for a single just before lunch to reach his half-century, made from 145 deliveries and including eight fours.
It was a welcome return to form for Root, who has struggled with the bat since making 180 in the second Test at Lord's, and England took lunch on 97 for one.
Root hit two fours in James Faulkner's first over of the day but with a century in his sights he swept at a full-length ball from off-spinner Nathan Lyon and top-edged a simple catch to Shane Watson at short fine-leg.
Pietersen got off the mark by driving Mitchell Starc for four through mid-off but the normally dynamic right-hander also struggled to find his touch.
Trott's first boundary came off the 78th delivery he faced and Pietersen's frustration was evident when, on 11, he attempted a suicidal quick single and was well short of safety when David Warner's throw narrowly missed the stumps.
England edged to 150, off 431 balls, and when Pietersen drove a full toss from leg-spinner Steve Smith back over the bowler's head for four it was the first boundary for 11 overs.
Lyon, bowling round the wicket to imaginative field settings, extracted some turn which troubled both batsmen but they picked off a few easy singles to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Australia took the second new ball just before tea and Starc trapped Trott lbw with his first delivery, the batsman failing to get the decision overturned on review.