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How can Virginia’s red zone offense be fixed?

Hoos came up with a paltry nine points against Miami.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Six times on Friday night, the Virginia Cavaliers were inside the Miami 30-yard line. They came away with just nine points as the anemic red zone offense sputtered in a myriad of ways just short of the end zone. The Hurricanes would go on to knock off No. 20 Virginia, 17-9, in a game that UVA fans will look back on with disappointment at the end of the season.

Three of those possessions ended with field goals. One ended in a “blocked” field goal after kicker Brian Delaney appeared to fail to get the ball over the line of scrimmage. One possession ended on a failed fourth down conversion. One ended with a fumble by first year running back Mike Hollins.

All of them fell short of the goal: scoring a touchdown.

The Virginia defense did their job, holding the Hurricanes to 265 total yards and two touchdowns.

The Virginia offense did not.

“We’ve got to score in the red zone, that’s plain and simple,” said quarterback Bryce Perkins after the game. “We had multiple drives to the red zone and not a single touchdown, so that’s on us. That’s the offense’s fault. The defense did their job, holding [Miami to fewer than 24 points], and we didn’t do ours.”

Frustration is mounting among the fanbase as Virginia left points on the field in winnable games in back-to-back weeks. Despite out-gaining the Hurricanes, the Cavaliers couldn’t convert when it mattered in the red zone. The red zone struggles aren’t new to this season, but things seem to have taken a step back in the last six quarters of action. The likelihood of Virginia moving on mid-season from Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae is slim, so what can happen going forward to potentially fix some of these issues?

1. When you’re in short yardage, run smart.

On Virginia’s second drive, the Cavaliers got all the way to the Miami 24-yard line before rattling off two unsuccessful rushing plays with Wayne Taulapapa. Facing 3rd-and-goal from the Miami one-yard line, Perkins took a sack.

“We had a pick play set … to get a running back into the flat with Bryce having the chance to use his legs,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said of the 3rd-and-goal play. “We thought we’d be able to run around them, and ultimately it backfired and we lost yardage. That hurt us.”

While the solution may seem obvious—line up under center and sneak your 6-foot-4 quarterback—Virginia’s offense operates out of the shotgun and out of pistol. Changing that to put Perkins under center creates lots of problems: it telegraphs what’s coming and puts Perkins and the center in a position where they’re more likely to have issues with an unfamiliar snap setup.

But the Hoos can still be smarter about HOW they run the ball in short yardage situations without totally scrapping the formations. The best rushing offense in the NFL this season (by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is the Arizona Cardinals, who run out of Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid system. Arizona leads the league—by a HUGE margin—in percentage of rushing attempts out of 4-wide sets.

Rushing from a pistol set gives the running back the same downhill momentum as rushing from the I-formation. Rushing from shotgun makes it easier to get outside. Either one can be paired with plenty of backfield motion to exploit defenders’ eyes and maximize blockers’ leverage. And either one should be able to generate needed yardage in short situations.

Which brings us to...

2. Get more creative on the run plays.

When you have a back like Jordan Ellis, the runs up the middle make a little more sense (and are more effective). Wayne Taulapapa is a strong, explosive runner, but he’s not getting set up for success with continued runs up the gut. One, when it’s predictable, it’s easy for defenses to stop. Two, when you have the offensive line struggles that Virginia has had, you’re not giving him time to get moving before defenders are on top of him.

The scheme doesn't look like it’s accounting for personnel, either. Virginia has spent the entire Mendenhall era recruiting offensive linemen who are long, athletic, and agile; they’ve stopped recruiting well-rated prospects who don't meet minimum height requirements. Those are the kinds of blockers who excel in space but struggle “in a phone booth.” So put them in space! Pull, trap, fold—whatever it takes. Going straight through opposing defenses can’t be Virginia’s strength right now, so the Hoos need to figure out ways to go around them.

3. Don’t get dumb penalties.

Ok, this one applies all the time, but emphasizing this here. After getting to the Miami four-yard line (thanks to an offside call on Miami when their player ejected for targeting wouldn’t leave the field), Virginia returned the favor with a five-yard penalty of their own on a false start. That pushed them back to the nine-yard line, creating unnecessary hurdles to get over.

Virginia has a chance to rebound at home against Duke on Saturday, October 19, in another huge ACC Coastal game. Kick off is set for 3:30pm.