AUSTIN, Texas -- Success in the red zone, right alongside ball security, was one of the touchstones of every preseason assessment for success given by Mack Brown and Co.
Texas was marginal, at best, when it came to getting the ball into the end zone from inside the 10s in the subsequent two years, largely because its offense had been marginalized by poor blocking, ineffective runners and shaky quarterback play. In 2010, Texas scored touchdowns just 44 percent of the time it entered the red zone. In 2011, it ticked up to 51 percent; still way below the national leader Wisconsin, which scored 64 touchdowns in 75 trips.
"We were not good in the red zone offense and usually with young and inexperienced quarterbacks, that's where you'll struggle the most because they are afraid to take chances, and we had too many turnovers," Brown said prior to 2012.
So with a year more experience it stood to reason Texas would be better, much better. And the Longhorns were. They scored touchdowns 74 percent of the time they made it into the red zone against Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, New Mexico, Wyoming, Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech and Baylor.
But in Texas’ four losses, three of which were games against defensive fronts now known to be far superior to Texas’ offensive front, Texas scored red zone touchdowns 58 percent of the time it made it inside the 20. (Remember against Oklahoma, Texas didn’t even make it across midfield until the second quarter and finally embarrassingly stumbled to the OU 19 on the last drive of the game. From there Case McCoy flung a 19-yard touchdown.)
In all, Texas scored just 10 red zone touchdowns against West Virginia, OU, TCU and Kansas State. Four of those were on desperation drives all of which came with 3:07 or less on the clock with Texas trailing by two or more scores. (Three –- the TDs against OU, KSU and WVU -- were with less than a minute left with Texas trailing by 10 or more.)
For there to be a claim of improvement – which has not been directly made about red zone success but has been more than alluded to when it comes to the overall team – it might be prudent to first have tangible evidence. From the current proof offered in the swing games everybody had circled on Texas’ schedule to start 2012 all that can be discerned is that Texas is caught in an eddy of ineptness when it comes to manufacturing red zone touchdowns.
The blame can be spread but most of the fingers should point to the offensive line and running game. On the 17 red zone trips in the four games Texas lost, four ended in field goals and three in no scores. Texas attempted 14 rushes in those ill-fated trips for negative 27 yards.
On the 10 red zone touchdowns Texas rushed the ball 14 times as well for an average of 2.7 yards. Not outstanding by any measure. But defenses do tend to stiffen and there is not as much room to run when the goal line looms.
The passing game was not much better. Again, in the seven times Texas failed to score seven points, the quarterbacks were 2 of 7 for zero yards with an interception and sacked or a 10 yard loss once. (In addition to this stagger stat, all of David Ash’s seven interceptions were caught by defenders inside the red zone therefore ending additional potential red zone drives and scores.)
On those 10 touchdowns Texas did score against the fearsome foursome of the Big 12, the quarterbacks were 7 of 8 for 80 yards. But six of those receptions for 66 yards were made on red zone scores where Texas was down two scores or more with less than 3:07 remaining. (The lone exception was a 14-yard pass by McCoy in second quarter against Kansas State.)
For those with an optimistic bent, Oregon State has allowed opponents to score touchdowns 63 percent of the time they have crossed into the red zone. So the potential to score in the red zone against the Beavers is there.
Of course, given the experience at quarterback, veteran line and that two of the nation’s most highly sought after running backs were on the roster it appeared there was the potential to score touchdowns in the red zone at the start of 2012 as well.