Last season, Mississippi State ranked a respectable fifth in the SEC in red zone offense, scoring on 85 percent (34 of 40) of its trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line. But if you break it down further, it’s clear that the Bulldogs were not great at finishing drives.
Of those 34 scores, 22 were touchdowns. So, only 55 percent of MSU’s trips into the red zone resulted in touchdowns. That ranked ninth in the SEC. The 22 red-zone TDs were tied for eighth with Auburn. The run/pass split was even: 11 were rushing touchdowns, 11 passing. Tailback Vick Ballard, not surprisingly, led the way with five red-zone scores, four of them rushing.
Quarterback Chris Relf had a couple of rushing TDs, and he and Tyler Russell had five touchdown passes apiece inside the 20. Tight end Malcolm Johnson had three scores through the air.
Ballard and Relf are gone. Johnson is injured. Russell is back, and with the Bulldogs expected to be more of a passing team this year, I suppose it starts with him in the red zone. Those TD numbers only tell part of the story, of course; Ballard did a good job moving the chains between the 20 and the goal line. Can LaDarius Perkins (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) fill that role, or will it have to be the inexperienced (but bigger, at 6-foot, 225 pounds) Nick Griffin?
Don’t discount the possible impact Joe Morrow could have. He’s only a redshirt freshman, but he’s also 6-4, 205 and, as his coaches have said often, can be open when he’s not open. Can you say fade route?
The offensive line obviously plays a big role here. The Bulldogs look strong in the middle, which is where most of the tough yards come. The tackles are the question marks, so you wonder how effective a guy like Perkins can be on the edge on such a short field, or how Russell will be able to make good, quick decisions against an attacking defense.
MSU’s offense is expected to be improved this season, and a true measure of that will how well it can punch it in those last few yards.