Plamondon: ND must improve red-zone woes
Brian Plamondon | Friday, November 6, 2015
After losing its top quarterback and running back due to injury early in the season, the Notre Dame offense has been humming along for all intents and purposes. The Irish rank in the top 25 in the nation in a host of categories, including total offense and scoring offense.
The Irish, however, have an Achilles heel that has become more apparent as the weeks have gone by: Their red-zone offense has been inept, ranking 85th in the country while scoring touchdowns on just 57.6 percent of trips.
Notre Dame has been able to skate by so far, but that might not last for long. Its final four opponents — Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford — rank 23rd, 11th, 12th and 39th in red zone touchdown defense, respectively.
Many fans are looking to Wake Forest and Boston College as locks right now, with a good chance to beat Pitt as well, thinking the Irish will enter Thanksgiving at 10-1 a foregone conclusion. Maybe that is the case, maybe not, but one thing is clear — if the Irish continue to struggle in the red zone, they will fail to put games away early, thus forcing their starters into extra snaps that will wear on them this late in the season.
At some point or another, Notre Dame’s struggles will catch up to it. Sure, since 2010, Brian Kelly leads the nation in fourth-quarter comebacks with 13. But the Irish can’t keep relying on finding a spark in the final frame, especially in tricky road games. Since 2013, Notre Dame is just 4-7 on the road, with two of those wins coming this season in come-from-behind wins against teams the Irish were favored to beat by double digits.
In order to play with confidence in a hostile environment, Notre Dame must begin to improve its red-zone efficiency. Touchdowns are always preferred, but even settling for a field goal is better than turning the ball over, which quarterback DeShone Kizer did twice against Temple and once against USC, an interception that brought the Trojans right back into that game.
The cause of the issues in that part of the field cannot be heaped onto any one player. Instead, the struggles stem from a confluence of reasons. For one, Notre Dame lacks a viable tight end threat. Alizé Jones has showed flashes of potential, including a 41-yard catch on the final drive against Temple, but he must be the big-bodied target Kizer so desperately needs near the end zone. The Irish need someone to complement the likes of Will Fuller and Chris Brown, both receivers that rely more often than not on their ability to stretch the field.
Notre Dame also needs to find its identity in the running game when it gets near the goal line. In the last four games, Kizer has run the ball 15 times in the red zone as opposed to C.J. Prosise’s 11 carries. Compare this to outside the red zone, where Prosise has 58 carries to Kizer’s 30. The change may have something to do with Prosise’s struggles in short-yardage situations. Whatever has the run game spinning its wheels in the red zone, the Irish must find a solution so that the offense doesn’t rely solely on Kizer at that part of the field.
If Notre Dame runs the table and ends up in the College Football Playoff discussion, it will most likely be due in large part to its improvement in the red zone. The Irish have the weapons; they just need to figure out how to utilize them with points at stake.
Their first chance to remedy this will come Saturday against a formidable Pittsburgh defense.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.