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Inside the Numbers: The Dead Zone II

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After Saturday, we have no choice: we’re diving again into what is plaguing Michigan’s horrific red zone offense.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I was the lone voice expressing concern for Michigan's red-zone offense.

This week, there is a chorus. And understandably so.

The Wolverines drove into the red zone four times against Air Force and left with four field goals. Not one resulted in a touchdown. As a result, they have failed to score a touchdown in each of their last eight red-zone trips and have just one in 10 red-zone trips this year. That is a touchdown rate of 10.0 percent, which is 128th in the country.

For further context, the red-zone touchdown rate for all FBS teams from 2014 through 2016 was 61.46 percent. Let's presume this is how often an average red-zone offense finds the end zone against an average red-zone defense. The odds that such an offense would not score a touchdown more than once in 10 red-zone chances are 0.12 percent.

This is no longer a potential concern. It is a problem.

And it has drawn lots of attention and scorn from Michigan fans because of the impact it had on Saturday's result. Michigan's 29-13 win against Air Force was closer than the score appears thanks to Karan Higdon's 36-yard touchdown run in the final minutes. The gap was almost always single digits because the Wolverines could not finish in the red zone and therefore could not distance themselves. Just like against Florida and Cincinnati, Michigan allowed an inferior opponent to hang around, and just like Florida and Cincinnati, Air Force did not have enough firepower to punish Michigan for it.

But, as I wrote last week, some opponent will do so if Michigan does not fix this soon, and it could be this Saturday against a resurgent Purdue if Michigan is not too careful.

This is why I am writing about the red-zone offense for the second straight week. I would prefer to focus on just how well Don Brown prepared for and Michigan's defense executed against the vaunted triple-option attack or Quinn Nordin's glorious leg or anything positive. But the red-zone struggles are like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction:

So here we are.

What has been the source of these struggles? Many fingers have been pointed at Wilton Speight, and it's not hard to see why. Unbelievably, he has completed just 1-of-13 passes (7.7%) for minus-1 yard in the red zone. His 12 incompletions inside the 20 were more productive than his one completion. That’s unlike anything I have seen.

But this is not only on Speight. Michigan has run the ball 20 times for only 36 yards in the red zone. Yes, the field is more congested in the red zone, and there's less room to accumulate a high yards-per-carry rate. But 1.8 yards per carry? That is also alarming.

So I decided to chart all 35 of Michigan’s red-zone plays thus far — 19 designed runs, 15 called passes, and one pre-snap penalty — to discover what is causing these issues.

To start, the Wolverines are shooting themselves in the foot on first down and putting themselves in a hole early. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly defines a successful first down play as one where an offense gains 50 percent of the yards it needs, and the average success rate is 42 percent. However, Michigan has had 12 first down plays in the red zone, and only three can be categorized as successes. That is 25 percent — well below the average success rate. And to make matters worse, three plays resulted in losses.

As a result, Michigan has found itself in 2nd & Long situations and clear passing downs. However, Jim Harbaugh and his staff have not had faith in Speight and the offense to make that play through the air vertically. They have been much more conservative instead. All 11 second-down plays in the red zone have either been runs or passes intended to hit a receiver in the flat. The Wolverines have just been hoping to pick up a few yards on second down to make third down more manageable for the offense.

Except that has rarely worked, with Michigan needing to travel at least eight yards in six of their previous seven third downs in the red zone. This has forced Michigan to predominantly set up in the shotgun and rely on Speight’s arm to get the job done. However, Michigan’s pass protection has not been solid with defenders either blitzing into Speight’s face or bull rushing an offensive lineman into his lap. This pressure has made Speight uncomfortable and caused him to lean on his back foot and not step into his throw, which is why so many of Speight’s throws have been fades, seams, or corners that sailed out of bounds. He hasn’t had sufficient time to survey the field and progress through his reads to find an open target. He’s had to get the ball out fast.

As you can see, it’s not just one thing, but everything, as failures on first down snowball into something much worse. These first down failures could be mitigated, too, if Michigan read what the defense was about to give them. Once Michigan has entered the red zone, defenses have been loading up the middle of the box and sending blitzers freely. They have been daring Michigan to throw a crisp dart over the middle, and one would think Michigan would take advantage with its platoon of tight ends.

However, Michigan has not accepted that challenge given its miscues on first down, conservative nature on second down, and tendency to only toss balls to the edge on third down. Harbaugh does not have much trust in Speight to make that throw, and Speight does not have much trust in his offensive line to give him the time to do so.

It has been a breakdown on all levels in the red zone.

This is due to the unit’s relative inexperience and Speight’s newfound inaccuracy. The good news is that these issues are fixable. Harbaugh will surely adjust his play calling in the red zone moving forward, and this offense should gel and become more cohesive.

However, the bad news is that it is unknown how long this will take. Is this something that Michigan can remedy in just a week’s span or will it take longer? You can ask Michigan fans to be patient, but that patience will go right out the window if the Wolverines open the Big Ten season with a loss to the Boilermakers on the road.

And I hope that doesn’t happen.

Because I don’t want to write about the red zone for a third week in a row.