When trying to figure out just how Washington State has built its 4-1 record this season, red zone efficiency on both sides of the ball is playing a major role.
The offense has had a fair amount of ups and downs this season, but it actually has been remarkably consistent at one thing: Finishing its red zone trips with touchdowns.
Red zone TDs are a major factor in drive efficiency, and drive efficiency is key to an offense’s bottom line, and the Cougars have been one of the best teams in the country in that regard: In 21 trips across their opponents’ 20, the Cougs have punched it in a whopping 16 times. In terms of raw red zone TDs, that ranks them 26th nationally and sixth in the Pac-12; in terms of rate, the 76% conversion is good for 25th nationally and first in the conference.
What’s most interesting about it is that the teams that tend to most successful in the red zone at converting their chances into touchdowns tend to be teams that run the ball very well. (Cue Rod Gilmore lamenting the Air Raid in the red zone.) Teams in the conference that have scored more red zone TDs than the Cougars include Oregon (21) and Washington, Utah, UCLA, and USC (19 each). All of those teams have at least 8 rushing TDs in the red zone, and are roughly 50-50 via rushing and passing.
The Cougs? Just five red zone rushing TDs this season with 11 through the air. And one of those red zone TDs was a QB scramble on a designed pass!
That WSU has been able to find such success throwing the ball in the red zone in unusual. It’s not that the Cougs didn’t throw a lot of red zone TDs under Mike Leach — they definitely did — but their best TD% seasons came when their passing TDs only marginally exceeded their rushing TDs in that area. For example, WSU finished 4th nationally in red zone TD% in 2018 (78%) and 21st in 2016 (70%), and they had identical splits of 27 passing TDs and 22 rushing TDs. But in 2019, when they were 50th, they threw 35 passing TDs with just 10 rushing TDs.
WSU Red Zone Offense
|Year||TD%||National Rank||Pass TD||Rush TD||Pass TD%|
|Year||TD%||National Rank||Pass TD||Rush TD||Pass TD%|
Now, there are a couple of ways to approach this.
The pessimistic view would be that regression is coming — that history shows us that WSU teams that rely heavily on throwing the ball in the red zone have a bit of a ceiling in terms of TD conversions.
But what fun is pessimism?
Let’s take the more optimistic view, which is that Eric Morris is pretty damn good at figuring out ways to get the ball into the end zone through the air in tight quarters. This, I think, is inarguable — even if whether it’s sustainable is.
For example, this pop pass to Robert Ferrel, in which the entire defense is flowing away from the actual point of attack. That’s scheme:
And this one from last Saturday, a nice pitch and catch using the time-honored red zone strategy of a rub route ... but caught by a tight end(!!) who came all the way across the formation:
Of course, this TD happened right after another tight end, Andre Dollar, dropped a left handed pass from Cam Ward that was delivered right to the bread basket on yet another nifty play design.
Maybe WSU can’t keep this up — both Oregon and Cal are terrible on the whole at preventing red zone TDs, and USC is much better. But maybe they can? And maybe it also starts to matter a lot less as the offense is working out the kinks and scoring more frequently from outside the 20.
And the defense ... well, we know they’re pretty great at red zone defense. Having allowed just 14 trips into the red zone in five games, they’ve only given up TDs on seven of them. In their two conference games, it’s just four TDs on eight trips — second in the Pac-12.
It doesn’t feel unsustainable, either: On a defense whose weakness is on the back end and whose strength is speed at the second level, it’s not even remotely surprising that it adds up to a lot of stops when the field is compressed.
Put those two together, and you’ve got a damn good team.
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