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Blue, red or green zone? Whatever you want to call scoring territory, No. 8 BYU is thriving in it

Heisman Trophy candidate Zach Wilson is leading a BYU offense that has upped its red zone scoring efficiency to better than 90% in 2020

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Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Neil Pau’u (2) celebrates a touchdown with teammates.

BYU wide receiver Neil Pau’u celebrates a touchdown with teammates as BYU and Boise State play at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. BYU won 51-17.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Longtime Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, who died in May, used to call the area between the 20-yard line and the goal line the “green zone” because that was where all the money was made in professional football. 

Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall often referred to it as the “blue zone,” for reasons that were obvious to anyone familiar with the BYU-Utah rivalry. 

Now the scoring territory is almost universally called the “red zone,” and former Washington coach Joe Gibbs gets most of the credit for introducing that term, a military phrase for decades, to the football lexicon in 1982.

“It was so frustrating last year, because we would have a 70-yard drive, and then we would stall. That takes a lot out of you, because you are grinding and then not to get points out of it, it is crushing.” — BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen

For the middling BYU football team last year, it was the danger zone, because once the Cougars reached it their offense often disappeared. Failure to score in the red zone cost BYU, which finished with a 7-6 record in 2019, at least a couple of victories.

“It was so frustrating last year, because we would have a 70-yard drive, and then we would stall,” left tackle Brady Christensen said. “That takes a lot out of you, because you are grinding and then not to get points out of it, it is crushing.”

A lot is different about the pandemic-altered 2020 season for the No. 8 Cougars — most notably their much-weaker schedule — but their improved red zone scoring efficiency is as noteworthy as anything else.

“We have played a lot better on offense in a lot of areas, and that is just another area that we have played a lot better in,” said BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.

The 8-0 Cougars, who have moved their red zone scoring efficiency rate from 73% (44 of 60) in 2019 to nearly 91% (39 of 43) this season, will put that prowess inside the 20 on the line Saturday at 1 p.m. when they host 0-3 North Alabama at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

It is one of the reasons BYU is outscoring opponents by more than 31 points a game in 2020. Only four times has BYU entered the red zone and gone away without points, and two of those came at the end of games when backup quarterback Baylor Romney took a knee in victory formation.

“That is one of the main differences from last year’s team to this year’s team, is the red zone production,” said BYU receiver Gunner Romney, Baylor’s brother and the holder of the unofficial record for most missed touchdowns by inches this season. “We were able to move the ball last year, we just couldn’t punch it in when it came down to it.”

Thirty-four of those 43 red zone surges have resulted in touchdowns, while five have ended with field goals. BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd is a perfect 9 for 9 on field goal attempts.

“That area of the field presents some challenges, but any challenge also presents an opportunity, and our guys, our playmakers, have stepped up in those moments,” Grimes said. “Whether it be Zach (Wilson) putting the ball right where it needs to be and on time, or a receiver going up and making a tough catch, or a center making a really difficult block against a nose guard when we need that block to provide a running lane in the ‘A’ gap, guys have got the job done.”

Thirteen more offensive touchdowns have come from outside the 20 — three rushing and 10 passing — as the Cougars have also emerged as one of the top big-play teams in the country as well. 

Last year, BYU had only 31 red zone touchdowns in 13 games, and was 120th out of 130 teams in red zone scoring efficiency. This year the Cougars are 27th, but are 10th among teams that have played six or more games.

“Red zone has been a huge emphasis for us,” said right tackle Chandon Herring. “Last year wasn’t our best at red zone production and so over the offseason we spent a significant amount of time on it. Through this season that has continued. We spend good chunks of time (in practice) on it and the benefits of it are clearly being seen.”