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Texas Longhorns must create more red-zone opportunities

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Whether it's through more explosive plays or more methodical drives, the Horns have to sustain more drives deep into opponent territory in 2015.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

When the Texas Longhorns made it into the red zone last season, the offensive brain trust was able to dial up enough effective plays to rank slightly above average in touchdown percentage.

The problem? The offense rarely made trips inside opponents' 20-yard line, finishing tied for 90th nationally with only 42.

Even if the best offenses don't living on long scoring plays alone -- Oregon, Ohio State, Baylor, and Georgia Tech ranked as four of the top five teams nationally in red-zone opportunities and all four ranked among the top 11 programs in offensive efficiency.

Ohio State often scored from distance, ranking in the 90s in methodical drives, but racking up 47 of 90 touchdowns from outside the red zone, while Georgia Tech relied on heavily on those types of drives due to the school's triple option offense.

Texas, on the other hand, failed to do either well, finishing No. 115 in explosive drives and No. 81 in methodical drives. Even sustaining them was a major issue -- the Horns ranked No. 116 in first down rate and ninth in the Big 12. Only Kansas failed to create more first downs than Texas in 2014.

However a team gets to the red zone, it has to convert when getting there.

So it's no surprise to note that exactly two thirds of the Texas touchdowns in the red zone came in victories -- 28 out of those 42 overall trips. In November, the Horns were particularly impressive, scoring touchdowns on 10 of 12 opportunities during the winning streak before failing to enter the red zone against TCU on Thanksgiving.

Other than a made field goal against Oklahoma State, the only missed chance during that stretch was a 37-yard field goal Nick Rose failed to convert.

Throw in a touchdown against Arkansas and Texas finished the season with 11 touchdowns in the team's final 13 trips into the red zone. Four of those came against a Red Raiders defense that ranked No. 112 nationally in defensive efficiency, so the competition level wasn't always the highest, but taking advantage of poor defenses is a hallmark of a good team and Texas looked like a good football team at times through the first three games of November.

The first touchdown drive came after the huge hit by cornerback Quandre Diggs on Texas quarterback Pat Mahomes that knocked the freshman from the game. Taking advantage of the quick change situation, the offense relied on four runs from Malcolm Brown to score in five plays, with the offensive line taking over by helping Brown gain the last 10 yards on three consecutive runs.

On the second, it was the 68-yard pass from quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to wide receiver John Harris that sparked the drive, with running back Johnathan Gray gaining the final 17 yards to continue the ground dominance for the Horns. The run by Gray was a nicely blocked inside zone with H-back Geoff Swaim leading the way on a linebacker. However, it became a touchdown because of some individual brilliance from the Texas running back, who made an excellent jump cut in the hole to make a defender miss.

With more plays like that from Gray in 2015, the Texas offense will become much more dynamic. And given his production late in the season when he was finally healthy, wanting more of that seems like a reasonable expectation.

The final red-zone touchdown came early in the fourth quarter, keyed by another explosive play to start the drive -- a 30-yard run from speedster Daje Johnson on an end around from a bunch formation. It was only his third carry of the season. A completion from Swoopes to wide receiver Lorenzo Joe and two chunk runs from Brown set up the senior's one-yard plunge.

If the offensive line can consistently create space in the red zone, the offense should be able to translate some of that success against poor defenses into touchdowns against better teams. A greater emphasis on the quarterback run game should also make a difference, especially if redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard ends up starting -- witness his 13-yard scramble up the middle as evidence of his red-zone playmaking ability with his legs.

The defense also has a role to play -- by forcing turnovers that result in possessions in or near the opponent red zone, it can set up more short fields, as Diggs did with his big hit on Pat Mahomes. Since Vance Bedford's unit forced only 22 turnovers in 2014 (tied for 50th nationally), it's possible that with better luck the group could force more, especially in recovering fumbles -- Texas gained only seven (tied for 90th nationally).

Whether it's by producing more explosive plays or winning more consistently at the line of scrimmage or on the perimeter to sustain more methodical drives, Texas has to make it into the red zone more consistently and take advantage with touchdowns when getting there.