Hallmark red zone efficiency fails Notre Dame in win over Pitt
Elizabeth Greason | Sunday, October 14, 2018
“A win is a win.”
That was the phrase of the day in the postgame media availability. Ian Book said it. Khalid Kareem said it. Miles Boykin said it.
That was the case against Pittsburgh on Saturday, as the Irish barely escaped with a comeback 19-14 win. They trailed for the majority of the game, before finally breaking through with a 35-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Ian Book to Miles Boykin — a lofted pass the senior receiver called a “dime.”
But at times, the game appeared as the Irish (7-0) had chances to take the lead much sooner, and even blow the game wide open. And in other weeks, a different Notre Dame team probably would have. The Notre Dame team fans have gotten used to seeing over the course of the season — especially over the course of the past three weeks — has been wildly efficient when it reaches the red zone. The Notre Dame team fans were introduced to Saturday was quite the opposite.
Before the Panthers (3-4, 2-1 ACC) arrived in South Bend, the Irish were 22 for 25 on scoring attempts in the red zone. But the Irish played some of their worst football once reaching the red zone against Pitt, while the Panthers defense made some plays there as well.
With first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 11-yard line, the Irish were unable to reach either the end zone or the line to gain, as junior running back Tony Jones Jr. got stuffed for a one-yard carry and a pass meant for senior tight end Alizé Mack fell incomplete. Book used his feet for gain five yards, but coming up short of the first meant the Irish were forced to turn to the field goal.
The next possession was no better, as the Irish reached the red zone, getting all the way to the Panthers’ 9-yard line, before promptly backing their way out by way of two sacks, each for a loss of eight yards, forcing a second-straight Notre Dame field goal.
“I think if we really wanted to do a dive on this and get into it, you know, the first two red zone possessions, you know, field goals, settling for field goals, [Book] had Miles Boykin on a touchdown and he gets his hand jarred, you know, for a touchdown,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.
The Irish appeared to be marching during their opening drive of the second half, still looking for their first touchdown of the game, but once again, things collapsed once they reached the red zone. Book threw his second interception of the night, as Pittsburgh redshirt-junior defensive back Jazzee Stocker nabbed Book’s pass deep in his own territory — a pass intended for senior Chris Finke that would have once again, almost guaranteed a score for Notre Dame, based on past precedent this season — but Stocker returned the pick 15 yards before finally being downed.
Boykin said that even after plays like those, he knows he can still trust his quarterback to win the game, they simply make it harder to do so — he does not feel the need to tell Book to keep his head up, Boykin knows he will go back out there on the next drive and be fine again.
“Not usually because unless I saw his head down,” Boykin said. “He’s usually fine.”
The first — and last — time the Irish converted for a touchdown from within the red zone on the afternoon came with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, when Book found junior receiver Chase Claypool from 16 yards out. Kelly opted to go for two in an attempt to tie the game, a decision he attributed to his analytics team, by the conversion attempt failed.
Boykin said, while it appeared that Claypool, Finke and himself were able to get open more in the second half, it really came down to the pass rush and Book’s ability to get the ball away.
“They ran a lot of pressure so they didn’t have time to throw to open receivers,” Boykin said. “You know we were open about the first half. So, it was really a matter of pressure.”
While the Irish scored a second touchdown, this one to Boykin, it came from outside the red zone. The 35-yard gem was a clear improvement from the previous week’s win over Virginia Tech, during which Book overthrew the long ball consistently.
“That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing,” Book said. “Can’t doing anything with that. Throw it and Miles will go get it.”
After the win over the Panthers, Notre Dame’s statistics in the red zone are notably different, as they are now 25 of 29 on scoring attempts in the red zone. The bigger difference however, comes in touchdown scores from the red zone. Before this weekend, the Irish were 18 for 25. Now, however, they are 19 of 29, adding just one to that total and failing to convert on four attempts, which is uncharacteristic of the squad.
“You know, I just, I think it’s the duration of a season, right,” Kelly said. “There’s ebbs and flows. There’s ups and downs. I think you just experience it. I think our guys learned a lot from today’s game in terms of, you know, hanging in there and having patience and finding ways to overcome some adversity. You know, very rarely do you give up a kickoff return for a touchdown, throw a pick, do some of the things we did today, and still find a way to win the football game.”