Red-zone production on the rise for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND — In golf, the mantra is: Drive for show, putt for dough.

College football’s equivalent to big-money putts is red-zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) production.

Notre Dame has been perfect “around the green” this season.

Heading into Saturday night’s matchup with Syracuse, the Irish have come away with points on all 14 of their possessions inside the opposition 20 — 10 touchdowns and four field goals.

Compare that to last year’s 36-of-45 (80 percent) red-zone efficiency (24 touchdowns, 12 field goals), and Notre Dame appears to be headed toward a blockbuster offensive season.

“The job Notre Dame has done in the red zone is just unbelievable,” said Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, a defensive guru by trade. “We’ll have a tough task and a great challenge that we’re looking forward to. It’s hard to be much better than they have been.”

“The quarterback has a lot to do with it,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, referring to Irish QB Everett Golson. “He’s been — as you know, knock on wood — he’s gone on a long streak here of not turning over the football. Your quarterback management in the red zone is very, very crucial. So I would say, play calling and your quarterback make a big difference in that area.”

Notre Dame has run 41 plays inside its opponents’ 20-yard line this season: 29 have been runs and 12 have been passes. The Irish have six rushing touchdowns and four passing.

Golson has completed 7 of 11 passes for 54 yards, while one attempt was flagged for interference.

Ten of those runs (for 38 net yards, including a 16-yard sack) were by Golson, which indicates a pass could have been a possible element on a few of the plays.

Like Golson’s 15-yard TD scramble before the end of the first half against Purdue. The focus of the play was for him to throw. After the game, he lamented that he had a receiver wide open in the end zone that he failed to see.

But the end result was positive.

That’s what a quarterback with skills like Golson can do for an offense.

Tommy Rees had his physical limitations as Notre Dame’s quarterback last season. Those forced the Irish to be much more conservative in terms of the sort of plays that were called.

“There is probably a little bit of play calling, from my perspective, that it’s a style of play calling in the red zone that plays into it, where you’re looking at touchdowns and if you don’t get touchdowns, you’re kicking field goals,” Kelly said, making a case for Golson’s impact. “Everett is very good with the football.“

“We want to be aggressive, that’s our mentality,” Golson said. “We want to take shots, but be smart while we’re taking those shots.

“We’re understanding what the coaches want. We’re more efficient in the red zone.”

Even the 2012 team, which Golson “managed” as much as anything, had its share of struggles with scoring opportunities. En route to a 12-1 record, the Irish scored on 48 of 60 (80 percent) trips to the 20 or closer, while scoring 29 touchdowns (48 percent).

“(The change) came with my development,” Golson said. “The coaches trust me a little bit more, so we’re able to do a little bit more in the red zone instead of being sort of limited.”

A classic example was the season-opening win over Rice. Inside the Owls’ 5, Golson took the snap and pivoted to his left to hand off to running back Greg Bryant. Only problem … Bryant went to the right of Golson. Forced to improvise, Golson had the wherewithal to find a seam in the Rice defense and slide into the end zone.

That’s the type of play that will get a coach’s attention and instill confidence.

What also helps is that Golson has a leaper like Corey Robinson, all 6-foot-5, 215 pounds of him, as a target in the tight quarters near the end zone.

“To a large degree, we’re utilizing some of the skill guys, the wide receivers, that can go make plays down there,” Kelly said. “It’s tough sledding down there. You really have to game plan down there. We’re doing a better job of (that), not that we didn’t do a good job last year, I thought we did a very good job.

“The (quarterback’s talent), being aggressive in play calling, taking care of the football, and getting it to your playmakers down there (is the key) to score points.”

Robinson’s 15-yard TD reception against Purdue has been his only catch in the red zone this season.

But, it was an important one.

In fact, Robinson said he saw the possibility of being open and suggested the play to Kelly.

“I feel more comfortable and confident telling what I see out there,” Robinson said. “(Last year, as a freshman), I was very apprehensive. I was still learning the game. I wasn’t a big shot. I didn’t want to tell the quarterback or the head coach of a major college football team, ‘Oh, I thought you (overlooked) this.’

“I feel more comfortable and confident in my abilities as a player and to see what the defense is doing. I’m out there playing my position. I know how (the defender) is playing me.”

When a guy speaks up, he better come through. Robinson handled the pressure and the pass.

“Compared to last season, we’re a lot better (in the red zone),” Robinson said. “Everett’s a very good quarterback. All I have to do is run my route, do my job, and the ball’s going to be there. It makes my job easier.

“We have more confidence in the receiving corps, even though we’re young. We know that anyone in the receiving corps can make plays. Everett feels comfortable throwing it to anybody, unlike before when it was more like one guy or two guys who were the go-to guys.

“(Coaches) are giving Everett more opportunities to call plays (at the line of scrimmage) and giving us receivers more opportunities to make them, as opposed to running it in.

“The red zone is more about communication and trust than anything else.”

“It’s pretty aggressive,” said tight end Ben Koyack. “It’s hard to see what Everett’s doing sometimes — he can pass the ball, he can run the ball. It makes it more challenging for defenses.”

“They are a great offense that has been spectacular in the red zone,” said Shafer, who planned to spend a major portion of practice time this week working how to counteract Notre Dame’s effectiveness. “A lot of that comes with being in tempo with their plays.

“They’ve been very consistent getting the ball to the dead zones of the (defenses of the) teams they play.

“When you get into the red zone (defense), you have to have well-trained eyes and have everybody understanding that the game gets compressed; the timing of the passing game, especially, is going to get a little bit more precise.

“Your eyes are going to take your feet where they need to be. They have to do a good job focusing in on that. It starts with the ability to have the kids be disciplined with their eyes and hopefully their feet will follow.

Find a solution or the putts — and the points — will keep adding up.

Notre Dame has found the end zone on 10 of its 14 red zone trips with the help of quarterback Everett Golson this season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

• The teams played at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 28, 1963. Notre Dame’s game the previous week against Iowa was canceled because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Notre Dame finished 2-7 that year, including five straight losses to end the season.

• Notre Dame’s opponents have registered only six drives that have entered the red zone. That total ranks fourth in the FBS among teams that have played three games.

• Irish quarterback Everett Golson is 13-1 in games he has started. That percentage (.929) is the second-best in school history, behind Johnny Lujack (20-1-1, .932).

• Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur and Syracuse QB coach Tim Lester were teammates at Western Michigan in 1998-99.

• Notre Dame walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi’s father, rocker Jon Bon Jovi, has headlined six concerts at MetLife Stadium.

• Notre Dame is 21-8-2 when playing in a current NFL stadium.

• ND is 32-4 under Brian Kelly when leading at halftime, and 33-3 when leading after three quarters.

• Kelly has won at least eight games in each of his first four seasons in South Bend.

• Notre Dame ranks as the winningest team in college football history based on its .7337 winning percentage.

• The Irish are one of six teams in the country that have only committed one turnover this year, the others being Arizona State, Georgia, Oregon, UTEP and Washington.

• ND is tied for first in the country in turnover margin.

• Kelly’s teams are 168-25-1 when winning the rushing battle. That total includes a 31-4 mark at Notre Dame.