Posted by: marcmwm | November 7, 2008

Twilight Zone

Hawkeyes’ offense enters Twilight Zone

By Marc Morehouse
Photo

Ricky Stanzi Iowa quarterback

IOWA CITY — For the Hawkeyes, the red zone this season has been a tight pair of jeans. Once they get in, they can’t do much with it.

Forty trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and just 20 touchdowns — that’s not nearly enough production for a team with flickering New Year’s Day bowl hopes. But it is the production of a team that’s 5-4 (2-3 Big Ten) and kind of running in place.

“The red zone definitely has to be a lot better for us if we want to go ahead and finish those games and not even be in close ones,” quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. “It’s something we might need to emphasize a little more.”

Statistically, the Hawkeyes can’t get much worse. They’re tied for ninth in the Big Ten in red zone efficiency, ahead of only Indiana. Iowa scores 80 percent of the time, going 32-for-40, but its eight whiffs in the red zone are second only to Indiana’s 10.

Iowa scores TDs only 50 percent of the time inside the opponents’ 20. Only Ohio State and Indiana have lower TD percentages.

The red zone is right there with turnovers and third down percentage when ranking reasons for Iowa’s 5-4 record and inability to punch through in close games. Since 2005, Iowa is 0-for-9 in games decided by three or fewer points.

“We’ve talked about that, turnovers, red zone, and third down, start right there,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’ll be that way 10 years from now. When you win, you’re doing well.”

In the Hawkeyes’ four losses, they’ve made 16 trips into the red zone and have come away with just four TDs and seven field goals.

Bottom line, Iowa is leaving points on the field and that’s taking victories out of the win column.

“If anything, you get more anxious,” Stanzi said. “You just want to score. You get that close, you just want to finish the deal.”

In the last three seasons, Iowa’s red-zone offense has been in a downward spiral.

The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten in 2005 with a 93.3 percentage, 27 TDs and 15 of 16 field goals. But in 2006 and ’07, they dipped to ninth (79.2) and 10th (78.9), respectively. Last season, Iowa scored 23 TDs in 38 red-zone trips.

The 61 percent TD percentage still was better than this year’s number.

“It’s an ebb and flow,” Ferentz said. “Third down, plus-20, those are critical areas.”

The biggest challenge offenses face in the red zone is that defenses become more efficient because there’s less field to defend. That means running and throwing lanes shrink. The game speeds up because there’s less space to cover. Also, offenses become more predictable. The playbook shrinks. There’s less room to maneuver.

“You have to (change),” Ferentz said. “You have to have a different plan, the field is so different. You have to alter things.”

You’d think the red zone would be running back Shonn Greene’s territory. On a third-and-goal at the 1 last week, it wasn’t. Illinois blitzed a safety and linebacker and stopped Greene for a 1-yard loss. The drive ended in a field goal, which is something but not quite enough, especially in a three-point game.

“Yes and no,” Ferentz said when asked about Greene’s effectiveness in the red zone. “As you might imagine, everything gets condensed. It’s not as easy to gain those yards down there.”

In nine red-zone rushes against Illinois, the Hawkeyes managed 19 yards, including a 9-yard sack. In four losses, the Hawkeyes have rushed 29 times for 93 yards and three TDs inside the opponents’ 20.

On pass plays, the defense can use the best defender on the field, the sideline. Iowa QBs have struggled in the red zone in the Hawkeyes’ four defeats, completing just 6 of 21 for 41 yards, a sack, fumble and interception.

“You have to use the field to your advantage (as a defense),” Ferentz said. “The sideline hasn’t missed a tackle in the history of the game.”

The Hawkeyes’ red-zone struggles were magnified last week at Illinois.

Trailing 7-3 late in the first quarter, the Hawkeyes moved from their 20 to a first down at the Illinois 12. Running back Jewel Hampton rushed for 2 yards on first and second down. The play clock caused a timeout before third-and-6, and then wide receiver Trey Stross dropped a pass that would’ve been short of the first down.

So a 15-play, 72-yard drive ended with Trent Mossbrucker’s 26-yard field goal. That’s not enough a lot of weeks. It’s really not enough in a three-point nail-biter.

Iowa’s next chance in the red zone began with a first-and-10 at the Illinois 11. A minus-1 run and two incompletions led to a 30-yard missed field goal. The next trip started with a first down at the Illinois 9. On first down, guard Julian Vandervelde was called for a 5-yard false start. This one ended short on the Greene 1-yard loss and forced a 19-yard field goal.

Iowa’s fourth trip into the red zone was mauled by a 9-yard sack on first down. Mossbrucker hit a 27-yarder. Finally, Greene punched in from the 5 to give the Hawkeyes one TD in five red-zone opportunities.

The red-zone futility ruined a brilliant defensive effort, with the Hawkeyes holding an explosive Illinois team to 332 yards, 130.6 yards below average. Also, an eight-minute advantage in time of possession was made pointless.

“We need to finish drives, and that all goes back to earlier in the season,” Stanzi said. “That’s something we weren’t doing and we didn’t do it again (last week). That’s the offense’s main thing, putting points on the board.

“Field goals are nice, but not when you’re that close.”

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