The NUmbers Guy: Northwestern’s Red Zone Offensive Woes

WNUR’s Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) takes an in-depth look at Northwestern football’s red zone offense and argues that the struggles have cost the team three-to-five victories this year.

Photo by Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

Photo by Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

I feel like I say this here far too often: I love Jeff Budzien. He’s a good man, he does his job, he’s intelligent, and he gave one of the best interviews I have ever been a part of. But when Northwestern’s offense stalls in the red zone and Budzien has to trot on the field, I get a little nauseous. Budzien’s money, so the three points are almost automatic, but this offense just can’t get the job done inside the opponent’s 20.

After the ‘Cats kicked three field goals in four red zone trips Saturday in their 27-19 3 OT loss to Michigan, it was obvious that something was wrong. I decided to make a spreadsheet of Northwestern players’ individual splits on plays that originated from the opponent’s 19 yard line to the end zone. You can click here to open the Google doc with the results in a new tab. Here are some of the more interesting takeaways:

9: Of Jeff Budzien’s 18 field goals this year, nine have been from 30 yards or less.

Big thanks to my co-host on Stats are for Losers, Tralon Williams (@itsyaboytray), for this stat. What this means is that nine times this year, Northwestern has been stopped from within the 13 yard line nine times. The difference between nine touchdowns and nine field goals is 36 points.

In the Ohio State game, Budzien’s three field goals came from 23 (six yard line), 29 (12 yard line) and 32 (15 yard line) yards out respectively. Northwestern trailed by four prior to the whatever-on-earth-that-was last play of the game. Converting one of those field goals into a touchdown makes it a tie game.

Against Minnesota, Northwestern had gone nine plays for 57 yards to take themselves to the 18 yard line. Three incomplete passes later, on comes Budzien. The ‘Cats lost by three.

On to the Iowa game. First and 10 on the 14. Hand-off to Mike Trumpy for three yards. False start on Dan Vitale. Hand-off to Trumpy for 6 yards bringing up third and 6. Sack. Twenty-nine yard field goal. Loss in overtime.

Thennnnn it’s Nebraska. UGH UGH UGH UGH UGH. Up until the final drive, Northwestern had been great in the red zone, scoring on all three of its attempts on Treyvon Green touchdowns. Then a Tyler Scott interception sets the ‘Cats up with first and goal on the Nebraska seven. Kain Colter runs a speed option to the left, cuts up the field and gets taken down on a great tackle by Avery Moss at the one to save a touchdown.

Second and goal from the one – sure thing, right? NOT UP IN HERE, GIRLFRAND. The ‘Cats run the ball twice and lose three yards, leading to a Budzien 21-yard field goal. Seventy-four seconds and one soul-stomping poop-storm later, Northwestern is 0-5 in the Big Ten.

Against Michigan, Budzien’s regulation field goals came from 40, 22 and 29 yards out respectively. Each one of those drives ended a ten-plus-play drive. In fact, 53 percent of Northwestern’s 15 ten-plus-play drives have resulted in a field goal. Only five have ended with a touchdown. Two have ended with no points at all.

It’s safe to say that red zone offense has cost Northwestern at least three games this year, but you could argue as many as five with Wisconsin being the exception. The ‘Cats aren’t cursed. They are damning themselves to irrelevancy by failing to execute when it matters most.

290.3: Kain Colter has a 290.3 passer efficiency rating inside the red zone this year.

Between the opponent’s 19 yard line and the end zone, Colter has thrown six passes this year. He has completed five of them. Three of them have been touchdowns. I never thought I’d have to say this, but #FREEKAINCOLTER. Let this dynamic athlete use his legs and his arm. It’s just one additional threat for the defense to think about. And when five of his 18 rushes have gone for touchdowns, that threat is significant.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Trevor Siemian’s passer efficiency rating sits at 151.8, 138.5 points lower than Colter’s, but on a larger sample. Siemian has dropped back 26 times, resulting in 10 completions and four sacks. However, five of those ten completions have gone for touchdowns with none of the attempts resulting in an interception.

3: No receiver has more than three receptions in the red zone this year.

Is it bad if Trumpy has as many receptions as Vitale in the red zone? Mkay, ‘cuz that’s reality. Vitale has been held to just two receptions for 14 yards and one touchdown inside the 20 this year, while Trumpy has two for 12. This was a big surprise to me, but it turns out that Vitale only had three red zone receptions for one touchdown last year, too. I don’t know why this is true, but I’m sure Mick McCall would love to get the superback more involved.

Christian and Tony Jones each have three receptions for two touchdowns in this category. All of the other wide receivers have combined for two receptions for 14 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown was kind of a big deal – Cam Dickerson’s 12-yarder against Ohio State to give Northwestern a lead in the fourth quarter. The other was a two-yard reception by Kyle Prater. That’s it. Zero receptions for Rashad Lawrence, the team’s third leading receiver.

9: Venric Mark recorded nine touchdowns from within the red zone last year.

Think they miss this guy? Last year, Mark was the guy in the red zone, recording 30 more carries than any other running back. Tyris Jones finished second on the team with eight carries for 27 yards and two touchdowns. Trumpy had six carries for 17 yards and two touchdowns. Green had one more carry than defensive tackle Bo Cisek.

This year, nobody has emerged as Northwestern’s go-to-guy. The criminally-under-used-at-times Green leads the way with 18 carries for five touchdowns, adding an additional receiving touchdown for good measure. Trumpy is second at ten carries for two touchdowns, with Mark right behind him at nine carries in his limited action.

Both Colter and Green have turned 27.8 percent of their red zone carries into touchdowns. Technically, Stephen Buckley had that beat prior to his season-ending knee injury with one touchdown on three carries.

When you narrow it down to carries within nine yards of the end zone, Colter has 11 carries for four touchdowns, Green has 10 for three and Trumpy has four for two.

The only real conclusion here is that Mark’s fractured ankle has deprived the team of a definitive workhorse inside the 20. Last year, the team kicked 16 field goals inside the red zone. They have matched that total this year in 18 fewer trips.

While the team does rank second in the nation in red zone scoring efficiency (scoring on 97.4 percent of drives – trailing only Florida State at 98.2), they also are tied for second in most red zone field goals. That’s not a stat you want to rank highly in.

In these last two games, it’s time to get weird. I’m thinking jet-sweep-to-Christian-Jones-wide-receiver-pass weird. You’re 0-6 in conference and most likely aren’t going to a bowl – what could go wrong? Let the players have some fun and try to create some points. It’s better than watching this team continue its slide further into humiliation.

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