ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When the Michigan football team is within reach of the red zone, it simply can’t get out of its own way.
A pass is out of reach of a receiver.
A play gets broken up.
A bobble by the quarterback throws off the entire rhythm of a drive.
The opportunities to score touchdowns at close range are there. Michigan simply isn’t converting those chances.
“We’re really close,” Michigan tight end Sean McKeon said Tuesday. “We’re right there. Missing a blitz pickup. Maybe a fumble, here and there. We’re going to get it cleaned up and fix it.”
No. 8 Michigan (3-0) opens its Big Ten Conference schedule Saturday at 4 p.m. ET against Purdue (2-1). Michigan’s players say that with the Big Ten schedule approaching, they’re working to fix the problem and they, as McKeon said, ”will definitely score more points.”
With Michigan’s lack of productivity inside the 20, it’s hard to say if McKeon’s statement is a guarantee, or if it’s simply a hope.
The Wolverines have averaged 402 yards and 32.7 points a game but haven’t scored a touchdown inside an opponent’s 20-yard-line — the red zone — since their season opener, a 33-17 win against Florida. Karan Higdon scored Michigan’s only red zone touchdown on a 3-yard run against the Gators.
Furthermore, Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight has completed only 2 of 14 pass attempts inside the red zone.
Michigan is 9 for 10 on red zone scoring attempts, but it is 1 for 10 on red zone touchdown opportunities and 8 for 10 on field goals by kicker Quinn Nordin. The Wolverines are last in the Big Ten in red zone touchdowns.
Big Ten red zone touchdowns, by team
|Team||Red zone touchdowns|
Oregon leads the nation with 21 red zone touchdowns. Winless Massachusetts has 11 red zone touchdowns. Georgia State is the only FBS team that has not scored a touchdown inside the red zone, and Michigan is one of five that has only one, joining Florida, Texas State, Georgia Southern and Florida State.
Michigan can count the ways it has stumbled. The Wolverines had two touchdown chances inside the red zone against Cincinnati, four against Air Force and four against Florida.
Higdon didn’t mince words after the 29-13 Wolverines win against Air Force last Saturday.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Higdon said. “We just didn’t capitalize on the little things, the little details that impacted us.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the Falcons simply outsmarted the Wolverines in the red zone, making strategic defensive calls to match the Wolverines.
But, he added, “We’d like to score more touchdowns in the red zone. Think that’ll come and our team is moving the ball, that’s a fact.”
Harbaugh explained more Wednesday in a radio appearance on Detroit’s 97.1-FM, and emphasized the point of strategic football and on-field decision-making.
“The way you manage that as a quarterback is you throw the ball away,” Harbaugh said. “You don’t throw the interception in the red zone, you don’t turn it over and you do get the field goal and put the points on the board. That’s also smart football.”
But it’s not necessarily productive.
“We need to be more focused,” Michigan tight end Ian Bunting said. “We have to have the mentality that we’re not going to be denied. It comes from everyone. From us doing our job, whether it’s protecting or running a route, and that’s something we’ve got to pick up on and something we will.”