Football: Red zone perfection

Oct. 19, 2011, 1:48 a.m.
Football: Red zone perfection
Junior running back Stepfan Taylor (with ball, above) is one of 12 Stanford players to reach the end zone this season. (MICHAEL LIU/The Stanford Daily)

After six weeks of games, the Stanford football team has a lot of impressive statistics that would make other teams envious. The Cardinal has the nation’s longest winning streak and a perfect record to start the season, and has beaten nine straight opponents by more than 25 points. And perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Stanford’s spotless record is a simple fact–the Cardinal is perfect inside the red zone so far this season.

The No. 7 Cardinal (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) has yet to make a mistake offensively in the red zone, scoring on all 31 of its drives inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Stanford’s 100-percent conversion rate makes it just one of three teams in the nation that has yet to be stopped inside the 20-yard line on offense this season, along with Mid-American Conference rivals Western Michigan and Ball State.

The Cardinal offense attributes its success deep in opponents’ territory to three things: frame of mind, creativity and conditioning.

“I think it’s the mentality. We want to finish the drives,” junior running back Stepfan Taylor said. “It shows greatness if you can drive the ball 99 yards, and that’s what a team’s all about, but once you’re down there, you’re just like ‘I’ve got to get it in.’”

“I think the coaches do a great job of putting us in position to be successful [in the red zone],” junior tight end Zach Ertz said. “[Offensive coordinator] Pep Hamilton’s in charge of that and he comes up with some pretty unique plays.

“After those long drives, the defense is usually pretty tired, we do a lot of conditioning over the summer to keep us in shape, and we know the defense is tired so that gives us an advantage,” Ertz continued.

Inside the red zone this season, the Cardinal has scored 13 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns and six field goals, a stat that nicely shows off the Cardinal’s offensive versatility, Taylor said.

“I think it goes both ways, we run the ball so it opens up the pass and we have the wide receivers and tight ends down there making big plays,” he said. “So that’s helping us out because all the running backs are getting big holes. Once we’re in the goal line, we have big receivers and big tight ends, so it’s hard for the defense to guard the run and the pass.”

Both Taylor and Ertz did mention that those six field goals were nagging on the offense’s record, although Taylor did allow that scoring touchdowns 80 percent of the time was a “more realistic goal” for the offense.

“We never want to settle for a field goal,” Ertz said. “The goal is always touchdowns every time we’re down there.”

With all that success down near the end zone, there are plenty of touchdowns to be had and plenty of players who are capable of scoring, as 12 Cardinal players have already found the paint this season. Ertz says that having so much talent on the field means there’s a little extra motivation to cross the goal line when the ball is in your hands.

“I would say it’s more of a friendly competition, you know? None of us really talk about [scoring touchdowns], we’re always happy for another man’s success,” he said. “With [junior tight end Levine Toilolo] scoring two last week and [redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener], that kind of set the ante for this week. Hopefully we’ll have some more.”

In addition to being flawless in the red zone on offense, Stanford isn’t too shabby on defense inside the 20 either. The Cardinal has allowed only 59 percent of opponents’ drives inside the red zone to end with points so far, a stat that makes them the best in the Pac-12 at preventing opponents from scoring. Stanford is one of just three teams to allow points on fewer than 60 percent of opponents’ drives inside the 20, with the other two being No. 3 Oklahoma and Rutgers.

But maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Stanford succeeds where it matters most on both sides of the ball–after all, red is its most flattering color.

Stanford will put its perfect red zone record and 14-game win streak on the line this Saturday against No. 22 Washington, the first time the Cardinal will be tested against a ranked opponent so far this season.

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