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It’s time for Michigan’s red-zone offense to deliver touchdowns

7th in red-zone offense sounds great. 88th in red-zone touchdown percentage? Not so much.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s great to score points, it’s great to score points in the red-zone — but it’s always best to score touchdowns.

Converting field goals is a great luxury, but touchdowns are better.

This is where Michigan Football’s offense finds itself nine games into its 2021 campaign.

Michigan has been able to get into the red area aplenty, ranking seventh in red-zone offense. However, as good as that statistic sounds there’s another that goes entirely in the opposite direction — Michigan ranks 88th in red-zone touchdown percentage. Michigan has been in the red-zone 45 times this season, and they’ve netted points 42 of those 45 times (25 touchdowns, 17 field goals).

Kicker Jake Moody has been one heck of a luxury for Michigan, someone who has been the collegiate equivalent of Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker this season. Moody is 21-of-23 on field goal attempts this year. However, when there’s a chance at 7 points and an offense repeatedly ends up with 3 points instead, it can prove to be costly — this was the case against Michigan State, a game where Moody was an impressive 4-for-4, but a game Michigan lost 37-33.

What’s the causation for the Wolverines being 88th in red-zone touchdown percentage? It’s a multitude of things, according to running backs coach Mike Hart.

“It comes down to obviously play calls and execution, right? I think when you look at us throughout the year, when you get inside the 25, sometimes it’s execution, sometimes if you have better calls, it is what it is,” Hart explained. “Sometimes they give us a look that’s not good for the call is what I mean by that, right? You practice something all week and you get a different look, sometimes it’s not a good look from that standpoint. Sometimes it’s just execution. Wrong read, missing a block here, missing a block there.”

For tight end Luke Schoonmaker, he looks at the struggles as more of a mental thing, and something the team can correct.

“I think, just everyone doing their job. Not freaking out, overthinking, and executing,” Schoonmaker said. “It will be something we continue to work on.”

When asked after the MSU loss about making red-zone improvements a focal point moving forward, head coach Jim Harbaugh said “it’s a big one”. Perhaps an answer for Michigan in the red-zone will be an increased utilization of Michigan’s tight ends in the passing game. Schoonmaker had a solid game against Indiana with 2 touchdowns, and Erick All was all over the field against the Spartans before leaving the game late with an injury.

“That can be a big factor in the red zone,” Harbaugh said about having big tight ends like All and Schoonmaker.

For Hart, it isn’t rocket science, he isn’t trying to over-complicate something that’s quite simplistic, something any fan on their couch realizes — touchdowns are better than field goals. Touchdowns give a team breathing room exponentially more than field goals do.

“I think the details in the end zone, in the red zone, need to improve from everybody’s standpoint. You don’t want to be 3rd-and-10 from the 10-yard line. That’s one of the hardest places to be in football. So we’ve just gotta do a great job of getting yards and still executing,” Hart said. “Everybody knows that we’ve gotta score touchdowns. It’s something that’s an emphasis. I think the offense knows, we know as coaches — touchdowns wins games and we’ve gotta score more touchdowns when we get down there.”

Michigan will face its stiffest test yet in the red-zone, as Penn State is quite formidable in that area — the Nittany Lions rank 6th in the nation in red zone defense. PSU has allowed just 10 touchdowns and 12 field goals on 34 attempts — they’re making the opposition kick field goals or holding them to no points more than they’re giving up touchdowns. While Penn State may have lost to Ohio State a couple weeks back, they held the Buckeyes No. 3 red-zone offense to four field goals and one touchdown on six red-zone drives.

The lack of success when Michigan’s been within striking distance has been frustrating and confusing. If there’s going to be a week where they really turn the corner in this area, it needs to be on Saturday against Penn State.

Settling for too many field goals on the road can prove to be fatal. It’ll be up to quarterback Cade McNamara, it’ll be up to Michigan’s offensive line, it’ll be up to the rushing attack. It’ll be up to the wideouts and tight ends, up to J.J. McCarthy to make his reps count in the red-zone. It’ll be up to the play-calling to get the players in the right position. There’s really not one identifying factor as to the struggles, and there’s not one clear-cut solution. I would, however, suggest a good balance of confidence and aggression in the red-zone — a killer instinct.

Make. Them. Pay.