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Auburn-Washington showed exactly how important the red zone is

The Huskies brought too many threes to a seven fight, while one play could give the Tigers the year’s best non-conference win.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game-Auburn at Washington Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Long after the game, it felt like the yellow rope being held up by security personnel at the goal line of Washington’s end zone had been there during the game as well.

Auburn won, 21-16, and the reasons why Washington lost are clear: missed opportunities on Auburn’s side of the field. Promising drives ended with field goals instead of touchdowns. Failing to make the most of opportunities against a defense like Auburn’s will get you beat.

“You get in the red zone, you’ve got to be very detail oriented, and you’re splitting hairs down there,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said after the game. “And against a good defense, if you don’t have your details taken care of, you’re going to end up kicking too many field goals.”

That’s exactly what Washington did.

Of the 100 yards a team has to gain from from goal line to goal line, the first 60 are relatively easy. But it is the final 40, and even moreso the final 20, where the field condenses and promising drives can go to die. Passing windows tighten, precision is key, and offenses that thrive on exploiting defenses both horizontally and vertically can’t do so as easily.

Washington scored 16 points on six trips inside the 40-yard line. That’s 2.7 points per scoring opportunity, well below the national average of 4.4 last season. Auburn wasn’t much better, with 21 points from six trips inside the 40.

Of the red zone disappointments, the most damning came on back-to-back drives to start the third quarter. Washington got to Auburn’s 8-yard line before committing offensive pass interference on a pick play — a play designed to create space in tight goal line situations — on what would have been a touchdown. They’d miss a field goal.

On the next series, the Huskies drove all the way to Auburn’s 3, and then this happened:

“I just went to pitch it, the guy knew I was going to pitch it, and put his hand out and blocked it,” Washington quarterback Jake Browning said. “I just gotta take the loss there and kick an easy field goal. The turnover killed us.”

“I thought we had no problem getting to the red zone. Both teams were kinda struggling the red zone, and they just converted a couple more than us,” Browning said.

Even when Washington did put it in the end zone, it was a happy accident.

During a fire drill substitution situation, Washington wide receiver Ty Jones came off the field and Quinten Pounds went in. He came up with this preposterous catch — his only reception of the game.

“Jake just threw one hell of a ball. The ball was a little almost out of my reach, so I didn’t want to do two hands and be short of the ball, and I just thought one hand was the best situation for that,” Pounds said.

Auburn wasn’t the portrait of red zone brilliance either, failing to score touchdowns on consecutive drives that got to Washington’s 14, 15, and 10.

But with 6:21 to go, the Tigers cashed in their only red zone trip of the second half.

In a game featuring pretty terrible red zone execution, the play that did hit for the Tigers was simple. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said that on the two plays preceding, the Huskies had dropped eight into coverage, not far from what they did on this third down play. That meant Auburn expected a numbers advantage.

With three wideouts to the right, Washington opted for two safeties over the top instead of putting one in the box and running a single-high look. In case of a pass, Washington’s outside corner, Jordan Miller, to the bottom of the screen played outside leverage, funneling Auburn’s tight end, Jalen Harris, inside toward safety help. On the other side, Washington’s three defensive backs have safety help behind them as well.

But the Tigers didn’t pass. They ran a standard zone, with clinical execution of a double team by left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and left guard Marquel Harrell. In a part of the field where space is at a premium, on the most crucial red zone play of the game, Washington left enough space to invite running back JaTarvious Whitlow into the end zone.

“I thought [offensive coordinator Chip] Lindsay made a super call with that very last drive when he ran the zone,” Malzahn said after the game. “I think it was 3rd down and 7 or 3rd down and 8 — just ran the zone in five-man box, and I thought it was one of the better calls of the game.”

And that was all the difference in Week 1’s only all-top-10 game.