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Michigan football takes first step toward solving red zone woes

Wolverines score touchdowns on all 3 red zone appearances in win over Purdue

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers in the second quarter of a game at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Michigan won 28-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines looks on against the Purdue Boilermakers in the second quarter of a game at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Michigan won 28-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor two and a half years ago, he took over a team that had just missed a bowl game and finished with a 5-7 record. Since that day, Michigan football is 24-6.

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Harbaugh's record at Michigan could be even better if not for struggles in one critical area: red zone scoring.

Michigan has struggled to turn red zone appearances into touchdowns under Harbaugh, a problem that began during the very first red zone trip in 2015, which resulted in a 29-yard field goal from Kenny Allen.

Last season, Michigan got burned against Iowa when they kicked field goals in place of touchdowns. A field goal in double overtime against Ohio State led to one of the toughest losses the program has seen in a decade.

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Even in the Orange Bowl, when Michigan was handed the ball on the 1-yard line after a botched punt, they couldn't punch it in and settled for a field goal. The Wolverines eventually lost by one point.

The problem carried over into the 2017 season as Michigan ranked last in the nation with a 10 percent touchdown rate on red zone appearances through three games. Michigan looked lost inside the 20-yard line, missing on open passes and picking up nothing in the running game.

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If the Wolverines continue to settle for field goals, it will eventually come back to bit them as it did last season. Even with an elite defense, it's nearly impossible to beat top-tier teams three points at a time.

John O'Korn helped Michigan take the first step toward fixing its red zone woes with his performance against Purdue. The Wolverines scored touchdowns on all three red zone appearances, and most importantly, they did it in different ways.

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The first score came on a touchdown pass to Zach Gentry. Gentry is just one of a loaded core of tight ends who should turn into red zone weapons. Gentry, Sean McKeon, Nick Eubanks and Tyrone Wheatley are all at least 6-foot-5 and have good receiving skills.

Having so many matchup nightmares is an advantage Michigan needs to use more often near the goal line.

Michigan's other two red zone scores came on runs. Not only was it encouraging for Chris Evans to get back on track, it's also the first time Michigan's rushing attack broke through for multiple touchdowns in obvious running situations.

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Harbaugh wants to be able to run the football when opposing teams know it's coming, and Michigan was finally able to do that against Purdue. Evans scored from 10 yards on a pitch that he took up the middle.

Later, Ty Isaac plowed in from a yard out to ice the game.

In a season ripe with positives for Michigan, the red zone struggles have been one glaring weakness. If the offense can get those problems straightened out through O'Korn, tight ends and the running game, look out.

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