Ohio State football finds early improvement in red zone by finishing in end zone
Most of the drives are resulting in six points, rarely three points.
As Ohio State has strung together a series of blowout wins in recent weeks as one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses, the Buckeyes' explosiveness has been complemented by a rediscovered success in the red zone.
The Buckeyes have the fourth best red-zone touchdown percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision, crossing the goal line on 18 of their 20 trips (90%) inside the 20-yard line.
Over the second half of last season, their drives often stalled as they approached the end zone, and they finished the year with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 64.4% that ranked 45th in the FBS.
It cost them points in tight games, including in a crushing loss to archrival Michigan. In that game, they twice settled for field goals in the first half to remain behind at halftime.
“That's something that we want to be really, really good at,” tight end Mitch Rossi said, “because in the games where the talent equates, and it's a shootout, you've got to score in the red zone, you've got to convert on third down. It's super important.”
Coach Ryan Day linked the early improvement this season to the chemistry built between quarterback C.J. Stroud and his receivers, even with Jaxon Smith-Njigba sidelined for most of the first month.
“C.J.’s throwing and catching with the receivers has been pretty good,” Day said.
He noted several of the high-difficulty passes Stroud threaded to Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr. against Toledo. Harrison’s 7-yard touchdown, the first of his two hauls in the end zone in the victory, came after he dragged his feet in bounds.
Late in the third quarter of Saturday's rout of Wisconsin, Stroud also fit a pass to Emeka Egbuka between two defensive backs for an 8-yard touchdown.
“That’s playing quarterback at a high level in the red zone,” Day said. “Nobody’s open.”
Pass coverage is tighter in the red zone as space is condensed, leaving tighter throwing windows and requiring precise passing. It’s an area where Stroud is more comfortable in his second season behind center for the Buckeyes.
“Third down, red zone, as a quarterback, that's where you make your money,” Day said. “We worked hard on that. We spent a lot of time with that during the preseason. So we've got to continue to do that. All it takes is one day and you’re out of whack. We’re going to stay hungry and make sure we do a great job of that.”
The Buckeyes have also been creative closer to the goal line, lining up at times in an I formation or keeping Stroud under center rather than the shotgun that has been ubiquitous for the offense since Urban Meyer first took over the program a decade ago.
Day for the first time called for a fullback dive against Toledo, a situation in which Rossi lined up as a fullback in the “I” and took a handoff for a 1-yard touchdown run.
They Buckeyes also ran a jet sweep with Egbuka for a 3-yard touchdown against Toledo, and rolled out Stroud to flip a pass to tight end Cade Stover for a 2-yard touchdown last week.
“We’re trying to be diverse and do different things, so teams can't gang up on what we’re up to,” Day said. “At the end of the day, it’s execution, but hopefully some of the different looks are giving us a little bit of an advantage.”
Day felt their efficiency running the ball has also been a factor in finishing drives in the red zone, scrapping for the few remaining yards.
After their effort practicing short-yardage situations from the red zone to third down, the Buckeyes are glad it’s showing early results down near the goal line.
“It's part of our plan to win the game,” Rossi said. “We look at that after every game. We analyze how we did in the red zone. Did we score touchdowns? Did we get points? It's something that we work on constantly. Every week.”
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