Through five games this season Penn State has scored on 20 of its 25 posessions in the red zone (inside the 20 yard line). What is worse is that 45 percent of those scoring opportunities were field goals rather than touchdowns. So, in 25 red-zone attempts, the Nittany Lions have only managed to put the ball in the endzone 44 percent of the time.
Based on their overall red-zone scoring rate (touchdowns and field goals) of 80 percent, the Lions are in last place in the Big Ten, although their red-zone opportunites (25) puts them in first place in the conference overall. "The offense has shown they can move the ball pretty consistently," one observer explained. "But they plain and simple are not capitalizing on the opportunities. That is frustrating for everyone."
This week the offense has conducted a variety of work in the red zone. As one observer said, "Anthony [Morelli] has shown a tendency to rifle the ball in close quarter situations — typically in the 10- to 15-yard range — so it is not surprising that he would have issues in the red zone, honestly."
Running: The coaches have worked Tony Hunt a lot this week in goal-line situations. Of particular focus has been the offensive line and working its roll and pull assignments on the line.
"A lot of the guys pull well, but when they engage their assignment they don't hit them square on, they hit them off-kilter, so the defender can step in or reach out into the lane and trip the run out." The linemen have worked on setting their blocks on the run and "sealing off the lane from the asssignment."
Hunt has worked with Galen Hall on running lower toward the line, "lowering and squaring his shoulders" and "sidestepping lanes" as they tend to "shift more down low due to all the bodies in a confined space."
Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster have also seen reps in these situations, but "Hunt is the guy given his size. They are also having him protect the ball more down there since their are lots of reach-in opportunities to strip the ball."
Passing: In terms of the passing attack, the focus has been on Morelli's throws. "He needs to relax first of all and not force these balls — it's OK to lob it in there if it's the right time," one observer shared. "Personally, I think he almost feels he has this reputation as a power passer and has to show off his arm on every pass. The coaches are working with him to understand that there's a time and a place for those rockets, but sometimes you need a softball."
The offensive line has also had some snap count work — working the snap count over and over again. With Gerald Cadogan seeing time for Robert Price (shoulder injury) and Chris Auletta getting reps for Levi Brown (knee injury) and Rich Ohrnberger stepping in at the starting right guard spot, the Nittany Lion coaches have had the line working on "assignments and snap counts — the little things that can kill you on the goal line."
In terms of receiving targets, "a lot of guys have seen work this week," including Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Derrick Williams, Chris Bell and A.J. Wallace. One receiver who has stood out in situational plays is tight end Andrew Quarless. "The guy is 6-foot-5 and can catch. I think they may be realizing he is a weapon down inside the 20 based on what he did last week."
To date 72 percent of Penn State' touchdowns this season have come on the ground (eight).
The red-zone issues don't stop at the offensive side of the ball. In terms of defense, Penn State is tied for last place in the league with Michigan State for 100 percent conversion of opposing red-zone opportunities (10 of 10). What is deceptive with that number is that Penn State is tied for second in fewest opportunities allowed in the red zone, behind Michigan and tied with Wisconsin.
The defense has seen red-zone work this week as well though, both on the pass and rush because they have given up four rushing touchdowns and three through the air.
"The defense doesn't give up too many opportunities to opponents. Northwestern's only score last week was due to a short-field turnover," one observer explained. "They have to tighten things up though when teams get down there — giving up 70 percent of your scores as touchdowns is really unacceptable to [defensive coordinator Tom] Bradley based on what he feels this defense is capable of."
The defense, particularly the linebackers and safeties, have worked "close-quarter, read-react drills" which "test the players' ability to see and hit lanes."
As another observer said, "I don't think the D's red-zone numbers paint a totally fair picture, but they need to address this to become a great unit."