Games can be won and lost in the red zone.
Seasons can be preserved or extinguished in the red zone.
I think back to 2015 when Michigan traveled to Minnesota on Halloween. The Wolverines were an 11-point road favorite and expected to win with relative ease, but they had more nightmares that evening than anyone living on Elm Street. The Gophers outplayed Michigan in most respects statistically, registering 461 total yards to Michigan’s 296 and averaging 6.78 yards per play to Michigan’s 4.85, and an injury forced Jake Rudock to exit in the third quarter with the Gophers holding the lead. Michigan was about to lose its second straight game and all shot at a Big Ten title.
However, one thing kept Michigan alive that night: the red zone. The Wolverines’ offense may have sputtered throughout the contest, but they converted on every scoring chance they had. They made four appearances in the red zone and left with four touchdowns. On the other hand, Minnesota turned four red-zone trips into just nine points on three field goals. And Minnesota’s non-scoring trip? A goal-line stand on the final play, allowing Michigan to celebrate a wild 29-26 win with the Brown Jug.
The Gophers left too many points on the field, and it eventually cost them the game.
And this could sink this year’s Wolverines if they are not too careful.
Last week, “Inside the Numbers” shined a spotlight on Michigan’s inefficient offense against Florida and the potential concerns it raised. It was understandable, though, because the Gators’ defense tends not to surrender many successful plays, ranking ninth in defensive efficiency in 2016. However, the same can’t be said for Cincinnati, who was 83rd in that metric. Yet Michigan’s success rate, which is based on gaining 50 percent of the required yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down, was only 36 percent against the Bearcats — the FBS average is 42 percent. As a result, Michigan is 104th in efficiency through two games.
Slowly but surely, this is becoming a problem for the Wolverines. Their offense can come in spurts — their nine 30-plus-yard plays thus far is tied for fourth nationally — but they keep shooting themselves in the foot when the chunk play is not there, whether it be Wilton Speight not stepping into his throw and sailing a pass over his intended receiver, an egregious missed blocking assignment, or unnecessary penalty.
And this has magnified in the red zone, where the space for chunk plays does not exist.
Michigan has made six trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this season and has come away with just one touchdown — Karan Higdon’s three-yard score against Florida — and four field goals. This means that the Wolverines’ touchdown rate in the red zone is just 16.67 percent. This is tied for 127th in the country. The only team with a worse rate than Michigan (Georgia State, 0.0%) has played in only one game so far.
That’s not just bad. That’s about as worse as it can get.
(Michigan is also 114th in points per trip inside the 40-yard line.)
Here is a breakdown of the Wolverines’ red-zone chances through two games:
- 5:27 1Q vs. Florida: Michigan had 1st & Goal on the 4-yard line, but Chris Evans was dropped for a five-yard loss. The Wolverines powered their way back to the 2-yard line, but what should have been an improv touchdown pass from Speight to Kekoa Crawford on fourth down was negated by an incorrect illegal receiver downfield penalty. This forced them to kick a 25-yard field goal to even the score at three apiece. This was more about the officials’ blunder, but Michigan had miscues on this opportunity, too.
- 11:53 3Q vs. Florida: Speight’s 28-yard laser to Grant Perry set up Michigan on the 10-yard line, and the Wolverines approached the line with tempo to keep the Gators on their heels. Florida was not fully ready for Michigan’s next two plays, both of which were runs by Higdon, and the second one had him shoot up the middle for a score.
- 11:05 3Q vs. Florida: Florida fumbled the ensuing kickoff, gifting Michigan the ball at the Gators’ 16-yard line. How did the Wolverines respond to this present? By going three and out and booting a 30-yard field goal to extend their lead to just six points.
- 5:26 4Q vs. Florida: Speight dropped a dime to Nick Eubanks for a 48-yard gain down to the Florida 8-yard line with a chance to put the nail in the coffin. Instead, the Wolverines took a sack, committed a false start, rushed for a single yard, threw an incompletion, and then missed a 32-yard field goal wide right. A disastrous sequence.
- 14:03 2Q vs. Cincinnati: Michigan had 1st & Goal at the 3-yard line and could punch in a touchdown to take a 21-7 lead. However, the ball slipped out of Speight’s palm as he went to hand it off and pounced on it for a seven-yard loss before the Bearcats could get there. No longer in position to beef up, Michigan resorted to trying to zing the ball through the air for a score. No dice, so Michigan had to kick a 28-yard field goal.
- 9:02 4Q vs. Cincinnati: It was 3rd & 2 on the 4-yard line, and Michigan wanted to propel its lead to three possessions. The Wolverines decided to give the ball to Ty Isaac and power it up the middle for a first down or more. But, of course, both guards — Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu — pulled into each other. Onwenu’s error allowed a Cincinnati defender to streak through an open gap and pummel Isaac for a loss. Another Michigan mistake in the red zone, and another short Michigan field goal.
As you can see, it’s not as if Michigan is stalling around the 20-yard line each time. The Wolverines drove inside the 10-yard line on five occasions and were inside the 5-yard line four times. Yet this led to only one touchdown because they cannot get out of their own way. They keep making head-scratching mistakes and taking large losses.
And, as a result, they are leaving too many points out on the field.
Fortunately for Michigan, this has not hurt them ... yet. Michigan made it seem like Florida and Cincinnati had alligator blood as both hung in deep into the fourth quarter, but neither had the offensive firepower to punish the Wolverines for these gestures.
Other opponents may have that offensive firepower (Maryland? PURDUE?!!) or be talented enough where Michigan will need every point it can get to earn a victory (see: Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State). The Wolverines cannot continue to waste prime red-zone opportunities. Otherwise, like Minnesota in 2015, it will catch up to them.
And potentially ruin Michigan’s season.