Considering 2015 Cougs in the red zone

DESPITE THE departure of a senior quarterback, there are reasons to believe Washington State will score more touchdowns in the red zone in 2015 than they did last year. Chief among them -- the offensive line returns all five starters, which should lead to both better protection and running lanes. There’s another item that fits in here, one that's not so readily apparent.

It may not have felt like it last year, but the stats show the Cougs weren't that far away from being really good when it came to scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

Strictly speaking, WSU ranked No. 9 in the Pac-12 in red zone scoring last year. But the main talking point when it comes to the red zone is scoring touchdowns -- and not settling for field goals.

WSU scored 39 TDs in 61 trips in the red zone (64 percent). That was a better percentage than UCLA, ASU and Arizona managed in ‘14. Oregon, by the way, ranked No. 7 in red zone offense in the conference but was at 65 percent in scoring TDs in the red zone. Washington, ranked a robust No. 3 in the conference in red zone scoring, managed a TD but 44 percent of the time after crossing the 20-yard line.

USC was only sixth in red zone scoring in the Pac-12 -- but they were tops when it came to finding paydirt once inside the 20-yard line, scoring TDs 75 percent of the time. And Southern Cal did it through the air, with 28 red zone passing TDs vs. 12 TD runs.

WSU scored 34 of their 39 TDs via the pass. The guess here is that rushing red zone TD number ticks up at least some this season.

In addition to that experienced offensive line returning, WSU also has running backs Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow back. Both were second-year freshmen last year and as the old bromide goes, the greatest amount of improvement comes between a player’s first and second seasons. For WSU, that should mean more receiving and rushing production from the ‘backs.

At quarterback, whether it’s Luke Falk or Peyton Bender, the Cougs should see more checks to the run – both in general and in the red zone. Connor Halliday liked to throw the ball and then throw it some more, even when the defensive alignment argued against it.

If Falk wins the starting job as many expect, one of the big storylines will be if he can finish off drives at a higher clip now that he has some playing experience under his belt. Over the last four games (three starts), the Cougar offense under Falk scored a TD 59 percent of the time (10 of 17) after crossing into the red zone.

One reason why it might feel WSU didn’t score as many red zone TDs as they did last year – they turned the ball over on downs five times in the red zone (tied for most in Pac-12 with Oregon and OSU). Also, WSU made just 10 of 15 field goal attempts on red zone possessions, meaning there were 10 total trips inside the 20-yard line where they came away with zero points. WSU’s 67 percent FG conversion rate inside the red zone was last in the conference.

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