CORVALLIS — By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Oregon State football team was already in a big hole.
A rough first half resulted in a 24-0 deficit to Utah in Salt Lake City last fall.
Then, a small spark of hope. The Beavers scored to make it 24-6 with 14:55 to go, plenty of time for a comeback.
When the Utes fumbled the ball away on their own 12, the window of opportunity widened.
The Beavers drove to the 1. Running back Malcolm Agnew dove for the end zone, but the ball squirted away.
The window of opportunity slammed shut.
Another red-zone chance gone wrong.
"I know in the Utah game we had a couple sacks when we were in the low red. I think the Cal game we fumbled on the 3-yard line," OSU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. "Just execution stuff that really hurt us, both in being able to score a touchdown but also either settling for a field goal or turning the ball over. Those are just killers. You've got to come out of there with seven points, especially when you're in that low red area." The Beavers did a decent job moving the ball up and down the field in 2011.
Quarterback Sean Mannion piled up 3,328 passing yards and seven players had 20 or more receptions.
Once the ball got inside the 20, however, it got a little dicey for the Beavers.
On 44 trips into the red zone, OSU scored 33 times. The Beavers scored 21 touchdowns on 11 runs and 10 passes, and kicked 12 field goals.
They finished the season ranked 100th out of 120 FBS teams in red-zone efficiency.
"Every time you're down there you want points, but those touchdowns are so important," Langsdorf said. "You settle for field goals too often, it really hurts you." The Beavers lacked consistency last season and struggled with execution at times.
Those are key elements to red-zone success, according to Mannion.
"Whether you're in the field or in the red zone, the bottom line is you've just got to execute your assignment and make good decisions," Mannion said. "And I think there's just a higher importance on that when you're in the red zone." Lack of a productive run game was a contributing factor.
The Beavers rushed for just 86.9 yards a game Injuries ravaged the offensive line and kept Agnew sidelined for all but six games.
Mike Riley and his staff looked to solidify the situation in the offseason. Several recruits were brought in, including starting center Isaac Seumalo.
Michael Philipp is back off his redshirt season to start at left tackle and Storm Woods will start a running back with Agnew as his backup.
Mannion is back with a year of experience and has plenty of wide receivers and tight ends to go to in the red zone.
"I feel great about it," he said. "We have a lot of guys in the receiving corps that can make a lot of plays for us in the red zone. I think our running game is going to be great this year.
"Similar to that, we have a lot of backs that can all contribute when we get in close to the red zone and then I think the really big thing is our tight ends and fullbacks. We have a ton of depth there and a ton of guys who can make a play for us when it's a short field." The players may be in place, but they need to know the ins and outs of scoring inside the 20.
Fall camp was full of red-zone work for the Beavers.
"We've had a lot more work on our goal-line and our short-yardage packages where we need a couple yards, we're first-and-goal and we've got to be able to pound it up in there and have a little action pass off of it, too," Langsdorf said. "So we've had good focus work on the real low red zone, inside the 5." An even bigger challenge is that area outside the 5.
A run might not be enough to punch it in and space limits the passing game.
"The tough part is you run out of real estate. You're playing in much tighter quarters, so some of your vertical passing game gets condensed," Langsdorf said. "So there's a little bit of an advantage defensively just because of space. So you have to create some space horizontally rather than vertically down there and be able to create some open throws." That's Mannion's job.
Langsdorf said the Beavers have been making quite a few plays in the higher red zone during camp by throwing the ball.
This week, the regular-season red-zone challenge begins.
"Something we really want to take pride in is getting touchdowns in the red zone and not having to leave it for a field goal," Mannion said.