Gary Doran

Red Zone Offense During the Todd Graham Era


In the three seasons of Todd Graham coached football at Arizona State, the Sun Devils have played in 24 regular conference games and one conference championship. In those 25 games, ASU has run 382 offensive plays within their opponents’ red zones (excluding kneel downs). Of those plays, 145 have been passes, 207 have been runs, and 15 resulted in a penalty, while 15 more resulted in a sack.

A total of 82 touchdowns were scored in those 382 tries, which is roughly a touchdown once in less than five red zone plays. ASU scored a total of 43 touchdowns through the air and 39 on the ground. On average, the Sun Devil red zone starting point was their opponents’ ten-yard line, and they averaged 2.91 yards per play, which included the penalty yards.

There were 75 passes completed out of 145 thrown. Two passes were intercepted. The total yards gained through the air were 576 for an average of 3.97 yards per pass and 7.68 yards per catch. The 207 running plays gained a total of 587 yards for an average of 2.83 yards per carry. The Devils completed only 51.7 percent of the passes from inside the red zone, while completing 63.1 percent outside the red zone. That is a significant difference.

Inside the red zone, ASU tried a running play 56.4 percent of the time and a pass play 43.6 percent of the time. Outside the red zone, the Devils selected a run play 49.1 percent of the time and a pass play 50.9 percent of the time, (for play selection purposes, sacks were considered attempted pass plays).  In the three years, roughly one out of every six ASU offensive plays has happened in their opponents’ red zones.

When home and away games are considered, ASU tried a pass play 46.1 percent of the time and a run play 53.9 percent of the time in its away games inside opponents’ red zones. For the home games, the pass plays happened only 41.9 percent of the time, while the run plays happened 58.1 percent of the times. The home-away play selection difference could be attributable to the fact that ASU led in 71 percent of the snaps inside the red zone at home games compared to only 65 percent of the snaps in away games. (The championship game was considered a home game for the analysis).

Here’s a look at the different situations the Devils faced in their red zone chances:


During the Todd Graham era, ASU has score a touchdown three out of every five times they entered into the red zone. In 2013, they scored touchdowns seven out of every ten red zone possessions. In both 2012 and 2013, the offense scored touchdowns in just over half the time it entered the red zone.




On first downs, the Devils had an average of over 7.5 yards to get either a first down or a touchdown, and relied almost two-to-one on the run vs. the pass. On second down, the average distance to get the first down or a touchdown was a little smaller and they passed the ball a bit more. On third down, ASU averaged nearly six yards to get a first down or a touchdown, and they relied heavily on the pass, throwing it about twice as often as they ran the ball. Fourth down for the Devils was all about the run.


When it comes to the most productive passing down for ASU within the Red Zone, it appears that second down was it. Not only did the pass plays cover more yards per pass on second down, they also gained a greater percentage of the yards needed for either a first down or a touchdown at 60 percent of what was needed. On average, no other down covered at least 50 percent of the needed yardage. There was also a greater percentage of second down passes completed. Although first down pass plays did garner more touchdowns per attempts at 3.00, second down plays weren’t that far behind at 3.38 pass attempts per touchdown.


Even though ASU relied heavily on the pass play on third down, it was also the lowest completion percentage down too. The percentage completion rate dropped nearly 13.5 percent from second down to third down to less than 50 percent. Third down pass plays also gained the fewest average yards per catch at 7.23 yards, compared to first down passes gaining 7.68 yards per catch, while second down passes were tops at 8.03 yards per catch.


From a productive standpoint, third down running plays appeared to be the most productive from a rushing standpoint taking less than about three carries to score a touchdown, while gaining an average of over 70 percent of the yardage needed on the play to get either a first down or a touchdown. There is a paradox in that third down was also the least productive passing down, yet it was also the down where a pass play was called most often.


As the season went along each year, the Sun Devils red zone productivity improved dramatically, (not counting the poor performance in the Championship game in December). September’s average yards per play was 2.36, in October, it increased to 2.83, by November, it had increased to 3.49. That’s almost a 50 percent increase during the year. Also, for November, ASU scored a touchdown once every 3.97 red zone plays, while it took 4.53 red zone plays in September and 4.80 red zone plays in October to score a touchdown.


Almost 60 percent of the plays run by ASU in their opponents’ red zone happened when they were already ahead on the scoreboard. The Devils were much better running the ball in the red zone with a lead and better passing the ball when they were behind or tied.  ASU seemed to let down a bit in pass protection when they were ahead, because their opponents registered a red zone sack once every 8.7 pass attempts, while it was only once every 14.6 pass attempts when they were either tied or behind.

Although the Devils passed more when they were behind, deputy head coach Mike Norvell did not abandon calling running plays when trying to catch up. When they were ahead, the run/pass ratio was 59.2 percent running plays and 40.8 percent passing plays. When they were behind or tied, they ran the ball 52.6 percent of the time and passed 47.4 percent. Still more running plays than passing plays.


When there were three yards or less to go to get a first down or a touchdown within the red zone, ASU ran the ball roughly three out of every four times. The running plays only averaged 1.4 yards per carry, but scored a touchdown on about one-third of the carries. On the downside, over 40 percent of the running plays with three yards or less to go were stopped for no gain or lost yardage. Of the 22 passes thrown with three yards or less to go, only 45.5 percent of them were completed for an average of 1.2 yards per throw and 2.7 yards per catch. Seven of the passes thrown went for a touchdown, which was just under one-third of the passes.

Looking at the three yards or less to go by down, there was a a significant difference in the passing game. On first down with three yards or less to go, ASU completed six out of seven passes, all for touchdowns. On third down with three yards or less to go, ASU did not complete any of its eight passing attempts. Also, when it got to be fourth down with three yards or less to go, ASU ran the ball every one of its eight plays. Six out of eight of those runs either lost yards or gained no yards at all.

On running plays with three yards or less to go, as the downs went along, it got harder for ASU to score a touchdown. For instance, on first down, ASU scored a touchdown on about 42 percent of its run plays. The percentage dropped to 37 percent on second down, to 35 percent on third down and only 13 percent on fourth down.





One thing seems clear, ASU sure did miss running back Marion Grice’s touchdown scoring capabilities in the red zone in 2014, as touchdown runs from within the red zone dropped dramatically from 2013 to 2014. This could also be due to other factors such as offensive line play, not to mention that for much of 2014 season, ASU played with a hobbled Taylor Kelly and a non-running Mike Bercovici taking away any red zone running threat by the quarterback.


Interestingly, the passing effectiveness dropped in each of the three years, both inside and outside the red zone. It’s surprising that in year two and year three, the Devils had an experienced quarterback and had one of the best receivers to come along in a while, yet didn’t do as well as Taylor Kelly’s first year, and without Jalen Strong. What also make it surprising is in that first year, there was a red zone sack of the ASU quarterback  almost three times as often as in 2013 or 2014.

On average, ASU has been able to score a touchdown within five plays of getting into their opponents’ red zones during the three years of the Todd Graham football. However, at the real crunch times within the red zone, in real short yardage or third and fourth down situations, the Devils did not prove to be overly effective either through the air or on the ground. It seemed that when the playing field got really compressed within the red zone, the ASU offense wasn’t powerful enough to just bully its way for the needed yards.

It is also interesting that the red zone passing game was at its best in the early stages of Taylor Kelly’s career, when it seemed that he had fewer quality receiving options. Additionally, 2012 was the year in which the play selection in the red zone leaned more towards the passing game compared to either 2013 or 2014.  It was also the year that sacks happened more often to ASU in the red zone.

A very good sign is that the red zone offense seems to improve as the year goes along. Is that because the play calling improves during year, the players themselves improve during the year, or a combination of both. This is also in light of the fact that conference teams get more film to scout on the Devils as the year goes along too.

Todd Graham talks a lot about ASU having a run-first offense. This analysis bears that out in the fact that even when the Devils are playing catch up, and inside the red zone, they still call more running plays than passing plays. The analysis also shows that inside the red zone, the ASU passing game lacked precision, or clutch passing.

Overall, The ASU offense was able to score a lot of touchdowns from inside the red zone thanks primarily to a stellar 2013 offensive season, however, last year and in its initial year, the offense was unable to punch it into the end zone in almost half their red zone trips.  There is definitely room for improvement in the Devil’s red zone performance. especially in the crunch times.

Research data from and websites.

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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