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PSU-Iowa pregame stretch...

October 1, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode
Between the Lions (established 2005)...

Red zone.

The two words that were on the lips of Penn State fans all week after the Nittany Lions’ miserable showing inside the 20s against Temple. (And don’t forget the problems there against Alabama in a situation very similar to the one PSU will face Saturday evening.) Offensive Passing Coordinator Jay Paterno tweeted this week that the team was working extra hard on its red zone sets, but hopefully he and Offensive Rushing Coordinator Galen Hall are also putting in some extra time on their red zone playcalling.

Sure, the most important factor in red zone success is execution, but the importance of playcalling is greatly magnified where the field shrinks and the pressure grows.

All of this can mean only one thing: The “15 Minutes” Guide to Red Zone Success.

Wait. What’s that you say? Who are you to be handing out red zone advice? Good question. While we’ve never quarterbacked or coached in the red zone, we’ve criticized many people who have and that’s gotta count for something. Plus, it’s not rocket science (although some coaches make it out to be) and the perspective we (and many fans) bring, that of an educated observer, is sometimes the best perspective because of that whole forest-for-the-trees thing. So … away we go:


Duh. While that might sound smart alecky, we’re dead serious. The potential reward of avoiding the red zone completely is worth the risk of taking at least one shot at the end zone every single time you cross the opponents’ 40.


You cannot afford to run a single play in the red zone where the defense knows whether it’s a pass or run (obviously, easier said than done, but still true). A short field and a defense that can load up on a tendency is a recipe for failure. Passing team? Run more often inside the 20. First-and-goal from the 3? Pass. From the 9? Run. 3rd-and-3? Run. You get the idea.


Like we said, not rocket science, but sometimes, a coach can get so caught up in trying to go against tendency that they forget temporarily about their bread and butter. You’ve got to give your best athlete at least one shot. Sometimes, even a play that is well defensed can work because of superior athleticism.

Note: You can combine tips #2 and #3 into a fantastic red zone strategy that involves getting your star player the ball in a new or different way. Stud running back? Throw to him on a wheel route. Incredible wideout? Turn him into a runner with a rocket screen. (And yes, we know that conventional wisdom says that screens don’t work in the red zone. Well, guess what? Of course they don’t work if you run them on traditional screen-pass down and distances. Don’t do that.)


Running wide in the red zone could be a dangerous proposition, but we advocate doing it at least once every third play – with a twist. With so many defenders able to play so close to the line of scrimmage, the defense has a greater ability to string out a play and make a potentially crippling tackle for loss. That’s why it’s essential that the player with the ball has the option to run or throw. That’s an easy scenario to picture with an athletic quarterback rolling out, but what about if you put the ball in your hand of a running back going wide? We’ve got two words for you: halfback pass. Wait, are we really recommending a gadget play in the red zone? Actually, no. We’re recommending the halfback pass as a regular part of any team’s red zone offense, a play that is practiced and used enough that it no longer works because of the element of surprise, it works because it creates mismatches.

So, there you have it. And it’s guaranteed not to produce results any worse than Penn State’s current red zone strategy produced against Alabama and Temple.

The pick

You can find out all you need to know about the Nittany Lions’ stock by checking out the staff picks Friday in the Altoona Mirror’s Gameday magazine. The Mirror’s sports staff is a smart and diverse bunch, analytical and realistic, and all seven of them are picking Iowa in this game. We would truly enjoy going against them and taking the Nits, but we have a hard time picturing a realistic winning scenario for Penn State that doesn’t involve five or six Hawkeyes turnovers. There just are no difference-making athletes right now wearing blue and white. If you wanted to hope for two candidates to assume those roles they’d be Evan Royster and Mike Mauti, but we’re talking wing-and-a-prayer type hope. What’s much more likely is that PSU can’t get anything going on first down against Iowa’s vaunted front seven and leaves Rob Bolden looking at a lot of 3rd-and-longs again. Meanwhile, if the Lions D can’t find a way to pressure Ricky Stanzi, he picks them apart … Iowa (-7) 24, Penn State 10.

Prediction record

Last week: Temple +13.5 CORRECT

Season straight up: 3-1, .750

Season vs. spread: 2-1, .667

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