Red (Zone) Alert For Ohio State

The Ohio State football team has talked all week about how each yard is going to be precious in Saturday's contest against Penn State. Nowhere else is that more true than in the red zone, where the Nittany Lions are among the nation's best on both sides of the ball.

Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has one theory why Penn State has been so successful at scoring once inside the red zone.

"Because they're good," he said.

That much is obvious – especially as of late. After going 6 for 11 on red zone scoring opportunities in the first two games of the season, the Nittany Lions have been perfect in their subsequent seven games.

That means that on each of PSU's 26 opportunities inside the red zone, the team has come away with points every time. Of those 26 scores, 19 have been touchdowns. For the season, the Nittany Lions sit second in the conference and 30th overall in red zone efficiency at 86.5 percent.

Fickell credited their success to their balanced offense. This season, the Nittany Lions are averaging 247.1 passing yards and 182.0 rushing yards per game, figures that rank them third and fifth in the conference, respectively.

As a result, nothing changes when the team gets in the red zone.

"They do what they do," Fickell said. "They're a good, physical football team that can run the quarterback. They can run the football and they can throw it. They're a balanced group where any time you get down there closer to the goal line, when you can't just key in on thing it obviously makes it more difficult. Balance is the great key."

Of the five times the Nittany Lions have not scored in the red zone, two of them came when they simply ran out the clock at the end of their first two games. The other three drives ended in one interception, one fumble and a missed field goal.

At the other end of the field, however, PSU is even tougher. Opponents have pushed the ball inside the PSU 20-yard line on 21 occasions this season and come away with points 12 times – a 57.1 percent success rate that makes the Nittany Lion defense the best in the country in that category.

Those 12 scores have been evenly split between field goals and touchdowns.

The numbers are not quite as rosy for the Buckeyes. Although OSU boasts the top defense from a statistical standpoint in the country, it sits tied for 51st in the nation in red zone defense, allowing opponents points 80.0 percent of the time.

"You've got to stop them and hold them to a field goal attempt and then hopefully you can block it," OSU senior safety Anderson Russell said. "As far as our mentality goes, our first thing once they get inside the 20 is that it's really a chip shot for their kicker so you want to hold them to a field goal at worst."

Offensively, the Buckeyes have been among the nation's worst at scoring inside the red zone. OSU ranks 103rd out of 119 teams with a 73 percent conversion rate. That figure is next to last in the Big Ten, ahead of just Michigan (69 percent, No. 111 overall).

OSU senior offensive lineman Jim Cordle said that the Buckeyes are taking the approach of looking at the entire field as the red zone when they head to Penn State this weekend.

"You've got to focus in," he said. "We've done better in the red zone. To put it in perspective, when you're at Penn State it's like the whole field is the red zone. That will help once we're in there, it's like we've been in the red zone for the last 80 yards or whatever."

Sophomore running back Dan Herron said the key to being successful close to the goal line is finding holes in the defense with the running game.

"I wouldn't say (being in the red zone) makes it harder to score, but it is hard to try to find little plays to run in such a small area," he said. "It's probably good to run the ball. We just have to work hard to try and get the ball in the end zone from the red zone."

However, quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano had a different theory. He pointed to the fact that a number of OSU drives have died of self-inflicted wounds in the form of false starts and other penalties.

With what amounts to a young offense that is still growing 10 games into the season, the assistant coach said the Buckeyes will need to cut down on mental mistakes in order to emerge victorious in Happy Valley.

"Since I've been here when we've struggled in the red zone it's been because of a penalty," he said. "Minus plays put you behind the count and then you're trying to catch back up again and you're in longer yardage situations.

"When you're in longer yardage situations in the red zone from a third-down standpoint, that's where you get turnovers because you start trying to force some things. Those are the things we've got to stay out of."

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