Michigan was in desperate need of a big win when it hosted Iowa on Oct. 5. The game came two weeks after the Wolverines were pummeled by Wisconsin and four weeks after it survived a double-overtime scare with Army. The Wolverines were down to No. 19 in the AP Poll and at risk of dropping out of the top 25 with a home loss, not to mention the damage a second conference loss would do to its Big 10 championship hopes.
Michigan escaped its meeting with Iowa with a 10-3 win, a game that was so close in part to its own red zone failures.
Red zone offense has been far from Michigan’s strength in its 2019 season, a fact that could prove pivotal in the Citrus Bowl against the University of Alabama. Michigan has been able to throw the ball relatively well — tied for 32nd nationally in yards per pass attempt, and only 25 FBS teams have thrown fewer than Michigan’s seven interceptions — but finishing the drive with a touchdown is far from a guarantee. Michigan has scored a touchdown in just 61.4 percent of its red zone trips, which ranked 65th in the nation. The Alabama defense has allowed a touchdown in 56.67 of its opponents’ red zone trips, which ranked 46th.
“They’re a very balanced offense,” Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “They got pretty good receivers, good running back. They’re a well-rounded team.”
The balance Surtain II referenced — Michigan is 54 percent run on the season — is present to a similar degree in the red zone. Michigan runs on 65.3 percent of its red-zone plays, but that rate is close to the national average.
Michigan’s red zone woes were costly in the loss to Ohio State, where the Wolverines scored one touchdown in three red zone trips, and kept Michigan from pulling away from Michigan State until the fourth quarter: three touchdowns in six red zone trips kept the Spartans in striking distance of what was ultimately a 44-10 game. The same problem occurred against Illinois, where something better than four touchdowns in seven red zone trips could have put the Illini away early for something more convincing than a 42-25 win.
Michigan’s inability to consistently score touchdowns in the red zone is also problematic because it has been far from automatic in field goal attempts. Its two kickers, senior Quinn Nordin and sophomore Jake Moody, have combined to make 13 of their 19 field-goal attempts, a 68.4 percent conversion rate that ranks tied for 87th in the nation. Because field goals have not been automatic — one of Moody’s misses came from inside of 30 yards — Michigan scores on just 80.7 percent of its red zone trips, 84th in the nation.
On average, Power 5 opponents have gotten to the red zone on UA’s offense three times per game. With Michigan’s season averages suggesting 14 points from those trips would be an accomplishment, it’s possible lack of success in the red zone quickly puts Michigan in a difficult spot in the Citrus Bowl.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson