At the end of the 2003 season, Michigan ranked first among Big Ten teams in red zone offense. The Wolverines scored on 44 of their 47 trips inside the 20 that year, including 31 touchdowns.
But Michigan has seen little of that same success so far this season.
After four games, the Wolverines’ offense has made 20 trips inside its opponents’ red zone, but it has put points on the board just 14 times. Ten of those scores have been touchdowns, while place kicker Garrett Rivas has connected on four field-goal attempts.
In its two losses combined, Michigan has scored from inside the 20 just twice in six tries.
“We’ve had ample opportunities in the red zone that would have impacted all those games, and we have just not been able to execute,” coach Lloyd Carr said.
In its 17-10 loss to Notre Dame, Michigan failed to score any points from inside the 20, despite reaching the red zone three times. On the Wolverines’ first drive of the third quarter, Irish safety Tom Zbikowski intercepted a Chad Henne pass at Notre Dame’s 12-yard line. After turning the ball over on downs inside the five early in the fourth quarter, Michigan lost its final chance to score from the red zone that day when Henne fumbled a snap at the goal line with just over five minutes remaining.
“Obviously we’re having a hard time finishing right now, and that is something we need to fix,” tight end Tyler Ecker said. “We have been given plenty of opportunities to score, and we haven’t finished.”
Against Wisconsin last Saturday, Michigan’s offense capitalized on two of its three trips inside the Badgers’ 20-yard line. In addition to Rivas’s 28-yard field goal at the end of the first half, the Wolverines scored from the red zone when Henne connected with senior co-captain Jason Avant in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown with 4:27 left in the second quarter.
But on Michigan’s first possession of the game, tailback Kevin Grady couldn’t punch his way into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the one-yard line.
“I think we left too many points on the board in the first half,” Carr said. “We missed two passes to Avant that were big plays. We dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone, and we came up short on fourth-and-one. We left a lot of points there.”
But it isn’t just Michigan’s offense that has had trouble in the red zone.
After its slow start against Northern Illinois, the Wolverines’ defense rebounded and is currently second in the Big Ten to Ohio State in terms of both points and yards allowed. But in the red zone, the defense ranks just 10th out of 11 teams.
Michigan failed to stop the Badgers on any of their five trips inside the 20 last weekend, which accounted for all 23 Wisconsin points. In addition to three field goals from place kicker Taylor Mehlhaff, Badgers tailback Brian Calhoun scored on a six-yard run early in the fourth quarter, and quarterback John Stocco notched the game-winning touchdown on a four-yard draw with 24 seconds left in the game.
Reflective of the Wolverines’ late-game collapse, four of Wisconsin’s five red-zone scores came in the second half.
Michigan’s trouble defending in the red zone stands out this week in light of the ease with which No. 11 Michigan State has scored touchdowns this season. In four games, the Spartans have notched 196 points – an average of 49 per contest – and have yet to put up fewer than 42 points in a single outing.
But Michigan State has been less than perfect in the red zone. The Spartans have capitalized on 21 of 26 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line – including 19 touchdowns – which places them just seventh among Big Ten teams in red zone offense. But unlike the Wolverines, who have found the end zone just four times from outside the red zone, Michigan State has notched eight touchdowns of more than 20 yards.
“I believe it is (the best offense we’ve faced this season),” fifth-year senior co-captain Pat Massey said. “I think the film will say the same thing. So there’s definitely a huge challenge in front of us.”