Penn State will enter Saturday’s game against Minnesota with the 13th-ranked red-zone offense. The defense the Nittany Lions will face enters with a red-zone defense that ranks 125th.
In a road matchup of 8-0 teams, Penn State will be in search of any advantage it can utilize. The red zone is one of them. The Nittany Lions have converted on 29 of their 31 red-zone opportunities so far this season. Out of those 29 scores, 25 have been touchdowns. It’s become part of their identity as an offense through eight games.
But they know they have to get there first.
“We’ve got to get into the red zone as many times as we possibly can,” coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “It’s been an emphasis for us [and] we’ve been good at it. I think literally every aspect is going to be important; going on the road, and kicking field goals, obviously is good, and important, but being able to go on the road and score touchdowns in the red zone is critical.”
The Nittany Lions have been slightly better than last season in the red zone, up 4% in overall conversion rate and up 2% in converting for touchdowns.
A lot of that has to do with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s game plan and play calling, according to quarterback Sean Clifford and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
“Coach Rahne draws up a really good scheme once we get [in the red zone],” Clifford said. “It’s one of those things where you’ve really got to take care of your opportunities when they come, and I think that we’ve done a good job of really enhancing our focus down there and making sure that each time we’re coming away with points, which obviously is the name of the game."
But Rahne’s job is made easier by the number of playmakers the Nittany Lions have on offense.
“I think Coach Rahne has done a great job and the whole offensive staff has done a great job putting our best playmakers in [positions] to score,” Freiermuth said after Penn State’s 28-7 win over Michigan State. “It’s all on Coach Rahne and us executing.”
It’s not just Freiermuth and the bevy of wide receivers who make Clifford’s and Rahne’s lives easier in the red zone. The Nittany Lions’ much-discussed group of running backs allows for Rahne to have a diverse number of options when calling plays inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
The team’s red-zone success is "a combination that we’re able to run the ball and throw the ball,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I think the best teams in the red zone are able to do both, and then obviously that translates when you get down there.”
Clifford stressed that the Nittany Lions’ red-zone success also ties into their preparation throughout the week and the mentality that comes with that.
“We work really hard throughout the week emphasizing once we get down in the red zone, the red zone equals points no matter what,” Clifford said.
This week starts a new, but just as challenging, three-game stretch for the Nittany Lions. The combined record of Penn State’s next three opponents is 22-2. Now more than ever is it important to score points when the team gets so close to the end zone.