Red zone scoring key for Hilltoppers going forward

By  | 

Going into college football’s fourth week of the season, Western Kentucky ranks dead last in red zone conversions.

Now, that distinction is a bit misleading, but should be no less concerning for a Hilltoppers’ team which has managed only two touchdowns on trips inside the red zone this season (and has managed just four red zone TDs in the last five games).

Western has made eight trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this year and scored on four of those trips. Only Akron and Iowa State have scored fewer red zone touchdowns (1).

Through three games this season, WKU has:

• Gone 1 of 4 in the red zone at Wisconsin, getting only a 25-yard Ryan Nuss field goal in the third quarter.

• Scored three touchdowns against Maine – all of which came from outside the UM 20-yard line.

• Gone 3 of 4 at Louisville with a pair of touchdowns and a 35-yard Nuss field goal, but one costly series which ended pointless.

Western Kentucky’s red zone failures are magnified for an offense scoring just 16 points per game (technically 13.6 if subtracting Devon Key’s pick-6 against Maine in Week Two) and for a team still searching for its first win. And in Saturday’s 20-17 loss at Louisville, no series was perhaps more crucial than WKU’s third-quarter drive that reached the 1-yard line.

The Tops failed to score there after losing four yards on second down, 10 yards on third down and having a 32-yard field goal blocked.

“If we score inside the 5-yard line? Different game,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “Going back to the play that we lost three yards on, those are situations where I wanna call a play that just gets downhill on a team that’s reeling a little bit.

“Instead we had an option on that play to pull the football on a run play and that’s part of zone-read offense. You live by the sword and die by the sword, but there is the ability for us to give (quarterback Davis Shanley), just, ‘This is a downhill play.’ And we have that in. Just gotta get them in that situation getting that call.”

In Western’s opener at then No. 4-ranked Wisconsin, the Hilltoppers opened the second half with a six-play, 67-yard drive that stalled at the UW 8 where Nuss kicked a 25-yard FG. On the team’s next possession a 65-yard drive that had taken more than four minutes put WKU on the Wisconsin 10.

Then this happened:

At the end of the third quarter Western drove to the Wisconsin 14 but had a 4th-and-6 pass from Drew Eckels dropped at the marker by wide receiver Xavier Lane. Then early in the fourth quarter, Shanley took over at QB and drove his team to the 16 going in – he scrambled to his left on 2nd-and-7 and was three feet from scoring before fumbling the ball away leaving WKU 1 of 4 in red zone trips.

Against Maine, oddly enough, WKU never got to the red zone. It scored on a 66-yard TD pass, a pick-6, a 32-yard TD pass and a 75-yard TD pass. In fact, the deepest Western Kentucky got into Maine territory was on the game’s last play from scrimmage in which Eckels ran to the 31 to set up a game-tying field attempt that was eventually blocked.

Despite WKU’s low mark in the red zone, Saturday’s game at U of L was a high point in that area of the field with the Tops going 2-for-2 to start the night to take a 14-0 lead. Shanley hit tight end Kyle Fourtenbary on a 9-yard pass and later ran in a 3-yard keeper.

A 35-yard field goal from Nuss with 8:14 to play salvaged a series that had reached the Louisville 18.

Last season Western scored on 74 percent of its red zone trips (116th nationally). The year before that the Tops ranked 46th by scoring 86.3 percent of the time.

Improving this year's red zone numbers will be a challenge for WKU again this week. Ball State (1-2) has only allowed opponents to score eight times in 13 red zone trips.

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop