‘Bama, Florida seeking TDs, not FGs

Published 7:15 pm Monday, November 30, 2009

No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Florida have bruising runners, with Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow leading powerful ground games. They have surehanded tight ends Colin Peek and Aaron Hernandez, and big wide receivers, too.

Muscling the ball into the end zone on trips inside the opponents’ 20, the so-called red zone, should be a breeze, right? Not necessarily.

Struggles in that area have had both teams seeing red at times going into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game showdown between unbeatens. Sure, it seems a relatively small problem to have for two teams with few weaknesses, but this game could leave little margin for error.

“That’s going to be a critical part of the game, as to who can finish in the red zone,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Monday. “The multiples add up between seven and three.”

They sure did in last year’s SEC title game. Florida got four touchdowns and a field goal on six red zone trips in that 31-20 win, reaching paydirt on two fourth-quarter visits.

Alabama got deep twice in the second half, driving 91 yards before settling for a short field goal, and throwing an interception inside the Gators’ 10. Seven plus seven minus three equals the final margin.

“If you have to settle for field goals in a game like this, it’s going to be tough to win,” said Tebow, the Gators’ bulldozing quarterback. “You have to come up with big plays in the red zone. When you get down there, you have to put it in for six because that makes a difference in winning and losing.

“In those final drives last year, if we settled for field goals, who knows if we win that game? ”

The Gators have gotten their act together since managing just eight touchdowns in 28 red zone trips in their first five SEC games. That helped turned some potentially easy wins into tight contests. (See: Tennessee and Arkansas).

They’ve scored seven touchdowns and a field goal in nine red-zone trips the last two games against a couple of weak defense.

Alabama had mixed results in a 26-21 game against Auburn. The Tide had first down from the Tigers’ 13 on back-to-back possessions but had to settle for a pair of Leigh Tiffin field goals that left ‘Bama down a point going into the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Greg McElroy left the field after the second one, which included a fumbled exchange with tailback Trent Richardson, getting an earful from Saban.

“We had a couple of missed signals,” said McElroy, who threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to win the game on the next red zone venture. “We had a fumble, which was kind of a miscommunication on the handoff, which was rare. I can count on one hand how many times that’s happened both in practice and in games the entire season. Just missed instruction and missed communication.

“It’s an easy fix. It’s just focusing.”

There’s no shortage of options in that part of the field. If the Ingram/Richardson duo and Tebow aren’t plowing through the middle, there’s the 6-foot-6 Peek or the 250-pound Hernandez. Both quarterbacks also have big receiving targets in ‘Bama’s Julio Jones and Florida’s Riley Cooper.

“Regardless of talent, red-zone scoring is all about execution,” McElroy said. “It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you don’t execute as well as you know how, then you’re going to struggle in the red area.

“We’ve done a lot better in recent weeks, in the red area and also making more plays to get to the red area. It’s been a point of emphasis.”

Both teams have strong-legged kickers who have been called upon plenty of times, partly due to stalled drives. Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin has made 27 of 31 field goals, including a 50-yarder. He’s leading the nation in field goal attempts per game (2.25).

Florida’s Caleb Sturgis has booted a league-best 56-yarder but hasn’t been quite as consistent, missing seven times in 26 tries.

Alabama is sixth in the SEC in red-zone offense, and Florida 10th. Saban is quick to point out that this doesn’t tell the whole story, since both teams are such frequent visitors.

“You did something to get it down there, you start with that,” he said. “You also want to finish when you get there and maximize the number of points you get. They’ve moved the ball effectively and gotten it down there, which I think is a credit to their offense.”

And they’ve gotten points even if not always in the multiples Saban and Gators coach Urban Meyer would like to see. Florida hasn’t turned the ball over inside the opponents’ 20 in the past five games.

The Tide’s big problem hasn’t been scoring, it has been doing it without relying on Tiffin’s right leg. Alabama has gotten points on a respectable 42 of 49 red zone trips but that comes with a 50-50 field goal/TD ratio.

The bright spot: McElroy hasn’t thrown an interception inside the 20 and Alabama has lost only one fumble in that area.

“The thing that Greg is very smart about, is he’s never going to risk throwing the ball away (to a defender),” Peek said. “Even if as a receiver you’re like, ‘Just throw it up high. I’m going to catch it, I don’t care if I’m double covered’ as a quarterback, he has to be smart about that. He can’t risk throwing it in there, and then we don’t get one of those field goals. That’s what makes him very successful.”