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Georgia Southern finds success in the red zone
Being in the red isn’t a bad thing for Georgia Southern.
The Eagles have scored either a touchdown or a field goal 25 of 27 times in the red zone (the opposing team’s 20-yard line or closer), ranking ninth among 120 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision.
They made only four trips inside the 20 against Chattanooga on Saturday but accomplished the maximum, scoring four touchdowns during a 28-27 victory.
GSU defense, which is tied for 28th (13-of-18) in the FCS when backed up inside the 20, made just one stop out of five in the red zone against the Mocs. But every little bit helps, particularly in a one-point game.
“I think (red zone numbers) are huge because it reflects on scoring offense which is the most important stat for any offense,” said GSU offensive coordinator Brent Davis whose offense is second in the nation with a 42.8 scoring average.
Southern hasn’t been stopped from converting inside the 20 during its last two games — nine possessions, seven touchdowns, two field goals.
Of course, an offense is supposed to score if it gets to the opponent’s 20. If worst comes to worst, and the offense didn’t gain another yard, a team should have at least a makeable 37-yard field goal attempt.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Last season, the Eagles fumbled twice in the red zone in the first half in a semifinal playoff game against Delaware, starting with a miscue at the 1 on their opening possession.
“To drive it down the field and not get anything, that hurt the momentum of the game,” Davis said. “We weren’t ever able to capture the momentum. (Delaware) had it the whole time.”
Last Saturday, Chattanooga came up empty after losing a fumble at the GSU 13.
And while it didn’t officially go down as a red-zone stop, Southern’s defense made the play of the game by negating Chattanooga’s attempt for a two-point conversion with one minute and 44 seconds left.
“Spread offenses spread you out and there’s a lot of room to throw the football between the 20s, but as you get closer and closer to the goal line, everything gets condensed,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said.
A changing game
With offenses becoming more efficient, defensive play in the red zone is becoming more critical.
The top 14 teams in the FCS defending the red zone have a combined winning percentage of .649.
GSU has had moments in just about every game when an opponent moved the ball easily. Samford had 208 first-half yards and only seven points. Tusculum had 261 passing yards by halftime but managed just 14 points in the opening 30 minutes.
But the Eagles stiffened as they moved closer to their end zone.
“It’s a lot easier playing defense in the red zone because it’s only 20 yards and there’s a lot less field (for the offense) to work with,” GSU safety Lavelle Westbrooks said. “You know your best friend is going to be the back of the end zone.”
Curtis said defenses are more likely to blitz in the red zone and defensive backs — knowing they won’t have to cover receivers for a lengthy period of time — are looking to sit on shorter routes.
Surprisingly, offensive efficiency of the top 12 FCS teams in the red zone translates to a combined winning percentage of only .563.
The Eagles’ 5-0 record bucks the trend.
Davis said several factors go into GSU’s red zone success. The Eagles have avoided making mistakes (turnovers or penalties) and have needed short yardage.
It also helps to have a field-goal kicker who rarely misses. Adrian Mora is 5-for-5 from attempts after GSU stalls in the red zone.
Finally, the Eagles have come up big and made plays.
GSU hasn’t been conservative. With time running down and no timeouts remaining before the half against Chattanooga, the Eagles decided to go for a touchdown after reaching the 1-yard line.
On the next play, the offensive line got a big push and quarterback Jaybo Shaw dove in for a touchdown.
“That’s definite a big goal of ours, to be efficient (in the red zone) and I think our guys have done a good job,” Davis said. “We told the offensive linemen, you want to play for a head coach that has confidence in you to make a yard. Now it’s on your shoulders to make the play.”
ON THE WEB
Watch a video of GSU coach Jeff Monken as he sizes up this week’s opponent, Furman. Go to savannahnow.com/sports.
Read Donald Heath’s blog at savannahnow.com/sports and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DonaldHeathSMN.
FURMAN (3-2, 2-1) AT GSU (5-0, 4-0)
Where: Paulson Stadium, Statesboro
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
TV/radio: WVAN/WZAT 102.1 FM
By Donald Heath, Savannah Morning News