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Why are the Utes struggling in the red zone? It starts with physicality and execution

With 37 trips to the red zone this season, the Utes have 28 red-zone scores — 11 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing TDs and five field goals, ranking Utah No. 110 nationally in red-zone offense

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during game against Oregon State on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore. Despite scoring 34 points against the Beavers, breakdowns in the red zone prevented the Utes from scoring more.
Amanda Loman, Associated Press

In recent weeks, Utah’s offense has experienced a metamorphosis of sorts.

With Cam Rising as the starting quarterback, the Utes have been productive, balanced and dynamic.

Even in Utah’s loss at Oregon State last Saturday, the offense scored 34 points, rolled up 450 yards of offense and recorded 28 first downs.

But there was one glaring area of weakness.

“One thing we didn’t do well on offense was red-zone production. We got in the red zone eight times and only came away with four touchdowns,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We need two more. Six out of eight is a good percentage. That was really our demise on offense, the red zone.”

Of course, it could be argued that the offense still did enough to win at OSU and the defense didn’t hold up its end.

But that’s another story.

“That was the biggest disappointment offensively in the game was our production in the red zone,” said tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham. “We were stopped inside the 5-yard line twice. Really, that was the difference in the game for us. It’s disappointing. It comes down to execution. That’s what we need to focus on. Every time we have those opportunities, put the ball in the end zone and get six points.”

The fact is, the Utes need to improve in the red zone.

With 37 trips to the red zone this season, the Utes have 28 red-zone scores — 11 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing TDs and five field goals. The percentage is 75.7%, ranking Utah No. 110 nationally in red-zone offense.

That weakness is being addressed in practices, coaches and players say.

“We just need to execute. We understand that it takes 11 guys on every single play,” said tight end Brant Kuithe. “No matter if it’s a pass or a run, just knowing each of our assignments and doing the best we can at that.”

“In the red zone, because everything is such a tighter space, one mistake is magnified,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “If you look back at four or five of our red-zone plays, whether they be routes that were open or a gap that should have been filled, there’s just one person that makes a mistake that messes it up. That’s what it is. It’s tightening up your job in the red zone.”

The Utes say play-calling in the red zone isn’t the problem.

Kyle Whittingham said he wants to see more physicality inside the red zone, particularly inside the 5-yard line.

His brother agreed.

“You’ve always got to believe that if you’re down there on the 3-yard line and in, that you should be able to run the ball in. Use your physicality to blow them off the line and create creases for your backs. They’ve got to run with violence and get the ball across the goal line,” said Freddie Whittingham. “At the same time, you can’t be so predictable that that’s all you do down there. You saw us throwing the ball and we had some good plays dialed up.

“One thing or another, whether it was two guys occupying the same space or a throw being off, we just didn’t execute. That’s the main issue. In the red zone, you’ve got to execute the game plan. You’ve got to absolutely be physical. That’s where it probably counts more than any because you have 11 guys in the box.”

Covey said in the red zone, things are much different than it is between the 20s.

“In the field of play, you can get away with a lot of things. Cam’s so dynamic. If a lineman misses a block in the field of play, you have room to run around and make something happen,” he said. “In the red zone, it’s not that way. I thought the play-calling was fine in the red zone. It’s just one person that would miss his assignment. You can’t afford that in the red zone because everything is so condensed.”

Wide receiver Theo Howard said red-zone efficiency is a focus this week.

“The point of the game is to score as many points as possible,” he said. “So when we get in there, we have to capitalize on those opportunities. We have to put it in the end zone every time we go down there.”

Oregon State’s defense deserves credit in preventing the Utes from scoring more touchdowns last weekend, Rising said.

“You’ve got to give props to them. They did a great job, especially in the second half. They put us in those situations and they stopped us in those fourth-down situations. We just need to finish in the red zone. Once we get down there, our No. 1 goal is to put it in the end zone.”