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Inside the Numbers: The (D)Red Zone

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Michigan's offense failed to enter the red zone in both of its games vs. Power 5 schools. "Inside the Numbers" calculates just how unlikely this is and figures out how in the world this happened.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What do you want first: the good news or the bad news? Good news? Okay, here's the good news: Michigan is one of only 18 teams in the country that have earned points on every trip they have taken inside the red zone this season. The Wolverines have scored on all 10 drives that reached the red zone, tallying eight touchdowns and two field goals for a total of 62 points. Efficiency! Woo!

But here's the bad news: all 10 of those red-zone trips occurred against Appalachian State and Miami (OH) -- a program in its debut season at the FBS level and a team that has lost 20 straight games dating back to 2012, respectively. This means that Michigan failed to reach the red zone -- the opponent's 20-yard line -- against both Notre Dame and Utah, which are the only two teams from a Power 5 conference that Michigan has faced.

That is, um, terrible.

How terrible?

Well, I checked the statistical archives at MGoBlue.com, which have information on every Michigan possession dating back to 1997, and I could not find another instance where Michigan was unable to enter the red zone. This means that, from 1997 to 2013, there were zero games in which Michigan was unable to reach the opponent's 20-yard line. Given that the Wolverines' historic non-shutout streak dated back to 1984, I am willing to bet that, before 2014, it had been at least 30 years since they failed to make it to the red zone in a game. And they just did it twice in three weeks.

Oof.

Now, to be fair, not crossing an opponent's 20-yard line in a game is not always necessarily a bad thing. There's always the possibility that an offense scored points, lots of them even, without entering the red zone. An offense may have just relied on touchdowns longer than 20 yards and field goals longer than 37 yards. This is uncommon but certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Is this what happened to Michigan?

No. Michigan's offense averaged 1.5 points against Notre Dame and Utah.

Oh.

So how in the world did this happen?

In its two games against Notre Dame and Utah, Michigan had a grand total of 24 drives. I charted all of them by starting field position, number of plays, yards gained or lost, ending field position, and result of the drive. To the surprise of no one, the information in the below chart is absurd.

Michigan's Offensive Drives vs. Notre Dame and Utah
No. Start Spot Plays Yards End Spot Result No. Start Spot Plays Yards End Spot Result
1 U-M 24 11 47 O 29 Missed FG 13 U-M 25 12 50 O 25 FG
2 U-M 25 7 45 O 30 Missed FG 14 U-M 24 7 40 O 36 Punt
3 U-M 9 5 29 U-M 38 Punt 15 U-M 25 3 -5 U-M 20 Punt
4 U-M 25 3 0 U-M 25 Punt 16 U-M 25 6 31 O 44 Punt
5 U-M 25 5 10 U-M 35 End Half 17 U-M 42 4 15 O 43 Punt
6 U-M 25 5 14 U-M 39 INT 18 U-M 49 4 27 O 24 INT
7 U-M 2 9 30 U-M 32 Punt 19 U-M 25 9 24 U-M 49* Punt
8 U-M 16 5 49 O 35 Fumble 20 U-M 17 11 45 O 38 Downs
9 U-M 20 1 0 U-M 20 INT 21 U-M 25 2 12 U-M 37 INT
10 U-M 25 5 20 U-M 45 Punt 22 U-M 27 7 22 U-M 49 INT
11 U-M 42 10 24 O 34 Downs 23 U-M 24 7 32 O 44 Fumble
12 U-M 35 3 11 U-M 46 INT 24 U-M 3 4 0 U-M 3 Downs

Here are my bullet-point takeaways:

  • Not once in either game did Michigan's offense start a drive in opposing territory. All 24 of them began on Michigan's side of the field, and 10 began at the Michigan 25-yard line as the result of touchbacks on kickoffs. The closest the Wolverines came to initiating an offensive possession past midfield was when Jabrill Peppers fair-caught a Utah punt at the Michigan 49-yard line.

  • Michigan's offense did not have a difficult time earning the initial first down. The Wolverines registered at least one first down on 20 of their 24 drives in these two games and were kicked off the field on a three-and-out or four-and-out only thrice. So the offense was able to move the football.

  • In fact, Michigan moved the football so well that it crossed midfield on 12 of its 24 drives. The table shows Michigan doing it 11 times, but there's one drive marked with an asterisk because it crossed the 50-yard line before being pushed back. So the Wolverines were able to move into opposing territory on half of their drives. In the Utah game alone, eight of Michigan's 12 drives crossed midfield and nine reached the Michigan 49-yard line. With this many trips past the 50-yard line, there should be multiple red-zone appearances and scoring drives.

  • Yet, as you know, none of these 12 drives that crossed midfield entered the red zone and only one resulted in points: Matt Wile's 42-yard field goal vs. Utah. Why? Because Michigan shot itself in the foot over and over and over again. Of these 12 drives, there were four punts (two of which due to sacks and one to a holding penalty), three turnovers, two missed field goals, two turnovers on downs, and the lone made field goal. Simply, Michigan's offense could not get out of its own way.

  • To calculate the unlikelihood of Michigan taking 12 trips past midfield and scoring or entering the red zone only once, I downloaded data from the CFBStats.com archives that have information on every offensive possession from the 2013 season. Last year, there were 12,562 drives that crossed midfield. Of these, 8,663 were either touchdowns or field goals made outside the red zone or drives that entered the red zone (68.96 pct.). This means that 31.04 percent of the drives that crossed midfield failed to score or reach the red zone. Using these percentages [edit: and assuming each drive is independent from the others], I calculated that the odds of Michigan crossing midfield 12 times and failing to score or reach the red zone 11 times are 0.002 percent.

  • And I must mention that Michigan committed five other turnovers -- all interceptions -- on its side of the field that not only ruined potential scoring opportunities for the Wolverines but also provided their opponent prime field position to add points, putting their great defense in a precarious position.

So how does Michigan fix this problem?

  1. For starters, Michigan needs to cut down on the bleepin' turnovers. The Wolverines are not going to win many games when they are committing a turnover on 33 percent of their offensive possessions against schools in Power 5 conferences. This is a recipe for disaster, which was quite evident against Notre Dame and Utah.

  2. It is clear that Michigan's offense cannot string together extended drives against quality defenses. Although the offensive line is improving, the line still makes too many little mistakes here and there that put the Wolverines behind the chains. Devin Funchess may not be fully healthy and may be Michigan's only explosive weapon, but it's time for Doug Nussmeier to take more shots down field. This may be the only way Michigan can generate consistent scoring opportunities because dinking and dunking is not cutting it.

  3. Michigan's offense could really use some additional help from its defense and special teams. Because the Wolverines cannot put together long drives, they need to set up their offense with short fields. This means that the return specialists need to flip field position occasionally with long returns and the defense needs to force turnovers more frequently.

  4. Seriously, stop turning over the football.

If the Wolverines can begin to do these four things this Saturday against Minnesota, their offense finally will be able to make trips to the red zone against quality competition, which will then allow us to see if that red-zone success rate of 100 percent is really what it is cracked up to be.