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Positively offensive

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, September 23, 2003

He had already caught three passes on a drive Notre Dame needed to score in order to stay in the game, but Rhema McKnight wasn’t finished.

So, on fourth-and-five with the ball on the Spartan 29-yard-line, he caught a short slant from Brady Quinn, turned toward the Irish sideline, turned again toward the end zone and sprinted for a touchdown – Notre Dame’s only one of the game and one of the lone offensive highlights for a struggling Irish offense.

But after the game, McKnight, who finished with a career-high eight catches for 104 yards, wasn’t in the mood for talking about his personal success.

“I’m just worried about the negatives right now and not thinking about the positives,” McKnight said. “We have to correct the negatives first.”

It was the same tune across the board for the rest of the Irish offense, which is ranked 113th in the nation out of 117 Division I-A teams.

So far, the Irish have managed to avoid pointing fingers, instead choosing to spread the blame to the entire team. And in most cases, that team-wide blame is justified.

“I think in all areas we still need to improve,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “When you look at our team, we did not put enough points on the board, we did not have enough execution.”

Where do the Irish problems lie on offense? All over the field.

Notre Dame has converted just 11-of-46 third downs, and zero in the fourth quarter. A rushing attack that gained 163 yards in the season opener against Washington State has only accumulated a combined 149 in its two games since. Quarterbacks Carlyle Holiday and Quinn have combined for a passing efficiency rating that ranks 112th in the nation. Receivers dropped a number of passes Saturday. An inexperienced offensive line is still showing signs of growing pains.

“I don’t think it’s so much we’re not clicking,” McKnight said. “We just tend to make mistakes in crucial situations. And we can’t have that in order to be a good team.”

Most troubling is Notre Dame’s struggles inside the red zone. The Irish have scored in all eight trips they’ve made inside the red zone, but only two of those scores were touchdowns.

The problem was magnified Saturday when Notre Dame’s defense and special teams gave the Irish offense the ball at the Michigan State 15- and 29-yard lines. Both times, the Irish kicked field goals, and on one of those drives, the Irish actually lost three yards.

“There’s an extreme amount of pressure right now,” Holiday said. It’s frustrating when you’re near the end zone and not able to put a touchdown in. It happens so much that it just sticks to your mind.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff has avoided laying blame at the feet of the offensive line, which was playing without starting center Bob Morton and right guard Sean Milligan Saturday but has still surrendered 11 sacks this season.

But backup center Zach Giles had trouble snapping the ball to a quarterback in the shotgun and the Irish running game never got going.

It’s a conglomeration of problems that the Irish plan to begin addressing in practice today.

“Every loss hurts,” Willingham said. “Every loss has that jagged edge on it that just kind of sticks in there.

“We’ve got to find a way to deal with this and go forward because Purdue will not. In fact, they are probably pretty happy we lost [Saturday].”