Larry Fedora bristled on Monday when a reporter asked if the spread concept morphs into a liability as the goal line approaches. The spread, after all, is based on utilizing space. The end zone serves dual roles as a payday and a third boundary. The former is a positive development for any offense; the latter, not so much.
“That’s an old-school attitude that when you get down to the red zone, you need to have big personnel in there and you need to pound it away,” Fedora said after his team scored 10 points in three red zone trips against the Gamecocks. “But if you’ve followed college football in the last – I don’t know – five years, I think people have proven that wrong. You can be a spread offense and be good in the red zone, the score zone and on the goal line.”
He makes a valid point. Alabama, employing the quintessential pro-style offense that prefers to run through instead of around opposing defenses, converted 90.3 of its red zone opportunities in 2012, including a 74.2 percent touchdown rate. Ahead of the Crimson Tide in the national rankings, however, were teams running spread offenses such as Clemson, Oregon, East Carolina and Ohio State.
The only issue is that Fedora’s offenses haven’t experienced that level of red zone success during his career as a head coach. In 2012, North Carolina converted 81 percent (51-63) of its red zone attempts, good for 70th nationally. The Tar Heels scored touchdowns on 61.9 percent of those opportunities (58th).
Those statistics serve as a microcosm of Fedora’s greater body of work – 66 total games – dating back to his start at Southern Miss in 2008. During that stretch, this spread offense has scored on 82.4 percent of its red zone trips (249-302) and converted 60.9 percent (184) into touchdowns.
For comparative purposes, the average national rank over that time period is 54th in red zone scoring percentage and 57th in touchdown percentage.
Oddly enough, the most efficient year was Fedora’s first as head coach – Southern Miss scored 39 touchdowns in 56 red zone appearances (69.6 percent, 19th nationally).
The key to success in the red zone is no different than in the open field, according to offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. It’s about matchups.
“You always have the good ole-fashioned fade- or slant-type thought process if people load the box,” Anderson said on Tuesday evening. “We want plays that have answers. We want plays that have the ability to put the ball out on the edge if they load the box and have the ability to run the ball if they empty the box.”
This offense has broken well over 100 school records at its various stops, so there’s no doubting its effectiveness. And it’s because of that success that Fedora and Anderson intend to stay within the scheme once the offense enters the red zone.
“It still comes down to one thing – you’ve got to execute,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to win some 1-on-1 battles once you get down there and run out of grass.”
A segment of the UNC fan base has expressed frustration in not shifting philosophies near the goal line to a more traditional power running approach. A.J. Blue, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior tailback, ran the ball just once – for a two-yard loss – in UNC ‘s 12 snaps inside South Carolina’s 10-yard line last week.
When asked if that was a consideration, Anderson replied: “If you load people in there, they normally load people in there, too.”
Anderson confirmed that UNC does have sub-personnel packages available, but those weren’t part of the solution against the Gamecocks. The coaching staff believed that if they loaded big bodies into their goal line sets, then South Carolina would counter with even bigger bodies.
“Our best strategy was to keep them spread out, keep a lot of grass between people, and had we executed better, I think the result would have been better,” Anderson said. “The bottom line is we didn’t execute very well.”
While there is validity in the questions regarding UNC’s red zone efficiency, it’s worth noting that Fedora’s worst year, red zone-wise, was also his best season overall. Southern Miss posted a 12-2 record and won the Conference USA title in 2011 despite converting only 55.2 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns.
The Golden Eagles finished tied for 91st in touchdown percentage that season with Alabama, which would go on to win the national championship.