Considering all of the effort it takes to drive inside its opponent’s 20-yard line, Tulane has been alarmingly sloppy once arriving there.
The Green Wave (1-3, 0-1 American) rank No. 123 nationally in red zone efficiency, scoring just 10 times on 17 total trips into the field’s most coveted territory. Like most areas associated with Tulane’s scuffling start, the problems are layered, nuanced and without a one-step solution.
A mistake-prone quarterback, an erratic freshman kicker, an injured long-snapper, a heavily penalized offensive line and unproven running backs are all culprits in Tulane’s red zone struggles. Problems which already existed before deep-snapper Mike Lizanich injured his hamstring (warming up before a 47-13 loss to Duke on Sept. 20) were exacerbated in his absence.
“Part of the red-zone problem is you don’t have a long snapper, so you’re not going to take some field goals in the red zone and instead go for it on fourth down,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “If you don’t get it, it looks bad, but sometimes that’s how you’ve got to play the game. We’ve missed some chip shots.
“Sometimes you’re just a little bit nervous sending those guys on with (the regular long snapper hurt). I’ve had to make the decision in putting those guys in a bad position, but once everything clears up, I think we’ll be fine.”
In its past six trips inside the 20, over a three-game span, Tulane has scored two rushing touchdowns, thrown an interception, missed two field goals and even punted once after penalties and a sack pushed the drive backward. With the exception of its 35-20 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, Tulane has scored just six times in its 12 red zone appearances.
The empty possessions are symptoms belonging to a team prone to mistakes, unable to sustain consistent offensive success. Long touchdown bursts from running back Sherman Badie and deep passes from Tanner Lee have helped provide some additional offense, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome the problems at the end of prolonged drives.
Johnson admitted some defenses have switched coverages and added pressure to bait Lee into throwing interceptions and taking long sacks, resulting in at least three scoreless trips this year.
But opponents have rarely affected freshman kicker Andrew DiRocco and the Tulane field goal unit, which has missed kicks from 21, 27, 34 and 36 yards to short-circuit offensive momentum. Still, Johnson reiterated his confidence in DiRocco and expects him to improve throughout the year.
“You don’t want to kick field goals and we have to kick far too many field goals,” senior tight end and reserve deep snapper Matt Marfisi said. “We need to punch it in when we’re supposed to. We also need to have our operation down when we do have field goals and young guys are going to miss some field goals and that’s part of growing, but I think he’s getting better.
“We just hurt ourselves a lot down there and defenses bring more pressure and we aren’t handling it well from a protection standpoint. It also leads to penalties. I think that’s hurt us as much as anything.”
Performance inside the red zone will be particularly notable at 7 p.m. Saturday against Connecticut inside Yulman Stadium, because the Huskies (1-4, 0-2 American) are one of two teams in the country that have performed worse than Tulane inside the 20. Connecticut has scored just three touchdowns and made four field goals in its 13 red zone appearances, ranking dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Whichever team can break out of its funk and cash in on its best opportunities will gain a significant advantage, not only by scoring but also avoiding the deflating feeling that comes with an empty trip to the red zone.
“It’s different than a normal possession when you don’t get anything out of it, especially with the penalties that have been killing us down there,” senior receiver Xavier Rush said. “Driving all the way down there and getting zero points is really frustrating. You try not to let it get to you but we have to be more focused down there and know the mistakes mean more when we’re down there because it’s such a good chance to score.”