‘We gotta score’: Red zone efficiency a point of emphasis for BYU offense in 2020
Cougars failed to score touchdowns in the red zone too many times in 2019, costing them at least a couple wins in a 7-6 season
PROVO — When you are not quizzing them about the prospects of playing college football this fall in the middle of a pandemic, ask any BYU offensive football player or coach what they are emphasizing in preseason training camp this month as they push forward with plans to play whoever is available and the answer is invariably the same: Red zone scoring.
“There were situations last year where we could have been more reliable as an offense in the red zone and it could have made a huge difference in our record,” said running back Lopini Katoa. “We were a few plays off from, in my opinion, a 10-win season.”
Instead, the Cougars went 7-6 for the second straight year, and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes went to work devising ways for BYU to improve its red zone scoring percentage — which measures how efficiently teams score touchdowns inside the 20-yard-line.
In spring camp, which was shorted to six sessions by the pandemic, it was a “huge point of emphasis,” Grimes said, and that direction has continued ever since the Cougars got back together on Aug. 4.
“We started practicing red zone first practice and we have practiced it every single practice so far, which I have never in my career practiced red zone the first nine days straight of fall camp. We have done it every single day, and we are going to be a lot better, I am certain of it.” — BYU passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick
“We were 16th in the country last year in trips to the red zone,” Grimes said last week. “So we got there. The number of times we got there would say we are a top-20 offense. … But we were just over 50% in our touchdown percentage once we got in the red zone. So that’s something we have emphasized since Day One.”
The Cougars weren’t all that great, either, at making field goals when they had to settle for them. But that’s a topic for another day.
Scoring touchdowns, and preventing them when the defense is on the field, is the name of the game, head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday when asked what areas he would most like to see the offense and defense improve on in 2020, provided there’s a season.
“Yeah all our red zone on Saturday was all live and the offense did a great job, scored touchdowns on all the drives,” Sitake said, noting the offense “won the day” in the first live scrimmage work since March. “That’s good for the offense, but bad for the defense.”
Quarterback Zach Wilson said he threw a touchdown pass to Matt Bushman from 25 yards out and fellow QB Baylor Romney threw a TD pass to Carter Wheat from about the same distance.
“Those are the plays we need as an offense to be able to show that we can score in the red zone,” Wilson said. “Because last year we definitely showed that we can get into the red zone, but we gotta score.”
Katoa said the message from offensive coaches is the offense needs to be “violent” when it gets inside the 20, and not as conservative or passive as last year.
“Yeah, we really just need to focus on (red zone scoring),” said offensive lineman Brady Christensen. “We have a lot of really good, talented players on both the outside and the O-line as well. We just have to use their talent and just finish drives. … Because that’s where we struggled last year and it is a huge point of emphasis for us this year.”
Wilson said the additions of offensive playmakers such as freshman receiver Kody Epps will help, but not making mistakes and silly penalties near the goal line where real estate is so valuable will go a long way in getting the efficiency rate well above 50%.
“We have guys who have played the last three years,” he said. “I would say everybody is coming together and making sure we learn the plays. … We are hitting it right off the head from two years ago. So the new guys have to come in and get used to the plays, get used to what we are doing. We are seeing a lot of good things out of those guys.”
Wednesday, passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said two years ago the offense’s biggest weakness was lack of explosive plays, but its red zone scoring percentage was among the best in the country. Last year, the weakness became a strength and the strength became a weakness.
“I don’t really want to tell you what we are doing, but it has been a huge emphasis this offseason to be a better red zone offense,” Roderick said. “We started practicing red zone first practice and we have practiced it every single practice so far, which I have never in my career practiced red zone the first nine days straight of fall camp.
“We have done it every single day, and we are going to be a lot better, I am certain of it,” Roderick concluded.