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Arizona red zone struggles to be heavy focus of offseason

It’s probably too late to fix it this season

arizona-wildcats-football-red-zone-scoring-wsu-cougars-fisch-wiley-2021-pac12 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are a lot of places to look when trying to figure out what’s been holding Arizona back from being able to win more of the many close games it has played. But one area, known for its distinct color, stands out above all others.

Red zone efficiency, or inefficiency in the Wildcats’ case, has far and away been their biggest issue in 2021.

Through 10 games this season the UA has ended up at or inside the opponents’ 20-yard line on 33 occasions, scoring 24 times. Yet only 10 of those scores have been touchdowns, a TD rate of 30.3 percent that isn’t just dead last in the country but is on pace to be the worst by an FBS team in at least 13 years.

It’s probably much longer, but only tracks back to the 2009 season.

Arizona is averaging 3.37 points per red zone trip, slightly above the 3.25 it averaged in last week’s 38-29 home loss to Utah when it got in there four times and ended up with a TD and two field goals. Wildcat opponents, who have scored on 32 of 33 red zone trips with 24 TDs, are averaging 5.79 points per possession.

That translates to 80 points over the course of the season. Take away the San Diego State and Colorado games, the only losses in which Arizona hasn’t been leading or within one score in the fourth quarter, and it has been outscored by 71 points.

“You got to either see the end zone as your friend or it’s kryptonite,” coach Jedd Fisch said. “We can’t see it as kryptonite. We’ve got to embrace it. We’ve got to get in it.”

While there are two games left this season, Fisch is already preparing for the offseason in that he said Monday the Wildcats will spend the first two days of spring practice focused solely on red zone offense.

“We will start with the red zone the second we can get on the field in the spring,” he said. “Day 1 of practice, traditionally you start on the field, we’ll start in the red zone. We will have the first two days of spring ball fully committed to the red area because we’re not going to live with red zone lack of efficiency again next season.”

So what’s causing the red zone problems? What’s not would be an easier question to answer.

The UA, which averages 3.67 yards per carry overall, gains only 1.84 yards on red-zone touches. The Wildcats have completed 59.8 percent of their pass attempts this season but that rate drops to 42.2 percent in the red zone, with three interceptions on 45 attempts.

And Fisch said nine drives have included at least one penalty, further pushing the offense back and causing it to have to settle so often for field goals.

“The biggest thing you’ve got to do when you get in that red zone area is you’ve got to find ways on 4-point plays,” he said. “It’s 3rd down and 6 on the 6. If you don’t get it, it’s a field goal. If you do get it, it’s a touchdown. That’s a 4-point swing. And we have to have a mentality, and what I’ve told our guys, is that our 4-point plays moving forward have got to be the most important place we practice. Because those are plays that really change outcomes of games.”

Running back Michael Wiley has been Arizona’s most effective red zone producer, with all four of his TDs this season coming in there. He’s scored three of the Wildcats’ last four red-zone TDs, including the game-winner against Cal on a run and a receiving TD against Utah that put them up 14-7.

Wiley said Arizona’s struggles down there come down to a lack of execution.

“The same execution it takes to get down to the red zone is the same execution you need to score,” he said. “We kind of lose focus and we just need to figure out a way to just maintain that focus so we can just finish the job.”

Washington State, Arizona’s opponent on Friday night, may not be the team that things get figured out against. The Cougars are second in the Pac-12 in red zone defense, allowing scores on less than 74 percent of possessions, and their 54.8 percent TD allowance rate is 42nd nationally.