Red zone crisis troubling Notre Dame's offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Just another crisis. Just another situation that is begging to be fixed.

That’s the essence of a football season at Notre Dame — or anywhere else, for that matter.

The most recent calamity du jour for the Irish is their offensive production — or lack of such — inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.

Last Saturday’s performance against Temple fanned the flames of an already smoldering concern. Two interceptions in five red-zone opportunities turned what could have been a convincing Irish victory into another fourth-quarter comeback.

That just added to the big-picture woes. Notre Dame is among the country’s bottom-feeders when it comes to efficiency in the red zone. The Irish have converted on 79 percent of their ventures inside the 20 — 26 of 33 — with 19 touchdowns and seven field goals. That’s good enough to rank 99th.

It’s even two percentage points worse than last year, which was considered a struggle down deep (50 of 62, 81 percent; 40 touchdowns).

The fixing process, though, might be difficult. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has had trouble putting his finger on exactly where the breakdowns are occurring.

“As we broke it down, we're having issues that are not just one person,” Kelly said. “It's the right tackle, then it's the guard, then it's the quarterback, it's the receiver. We have to play better as a unit first, then maybe feature some more guys in there that can help us be better down there.”

That’s even scarier. When Kelly can’t even pinpoint one specific area that must be either overhauled or improved — by coaching or personnel changes — there’s reason for concern.

“It's certainly a number that we're aware of, that we have to really clean up the turnovers, converting field goals into touchdowns,” Kelly said. “Our offense is what it is. We just have to be more efficient down there and spend extra time in practice in making sure that when we get into those areas, we convert them into touchdowns.

“It's been the case a couple times on the road that it's really been an issue for us. Virginia, obviously, and of course against Temple. Both those games we had opportunities to really lay some points on our opposition and didn't do it.”

Gone are the days when the Irish had a battering ram like fullback Jerome Bettis: Give him the ball and get out of his way. Somehow, he’s going to score.

C.J. Prosise, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, is hardly considered a power back — even though he’s up to the challenge.

“I can definitely be that power back,” Prosise said. “I can get in there, get my pads down, I can drop my feet and get three, four yards, whatever we need.”

Kelly, or whoever is calling plays these days, didn’t agree with Prosise’s thought that he could get the tough yards. There were 17 red-zone plays called in five different attempts against Temple. They gained a total of 42 yards. Prosise got just four carries for a net of minus-one yard.

Eleven of those 17 plays went for zero or negative yards. Five were incomplete passes and two were interceptions. The best was the game-winner, a 17-yard TD pass to Will Fuller.

“First of all, it starts up front. Our (offensive) line executes,” said Prosise. “Then, we have to make the right decisions at quarterback. If I ever get the ball, whatever plays we have, we have to execute them.”

“When you get down there, it's so game-plan centric,” Kelly said. “Teams are really dictating down there what you do. Are they laying off in coverage? Are there eight or nine guys on the line of scrimmage? I mean, you're in a short field, right? It's so game-plan oriented down there in terms of what you're doing and how you're doing it.

“It really requires all players to be functioning together. That's the real point of this relative to efficiency down there. You can't just rely on your offensive line because they may not be able to block everybody. A back may have to run through a tackle or two. A quarterback may have to be on time to hit the corner route and be precise with that throw and be on time.

“It's really about the unit playing well down there more so than the unit being all 11, more so than one group of players.”

It used to be the fade to 6-5 Corey Robinson was an automatic down deep. Robinson, who’s in the middle of a junior slump, has just one touchdown this season. One of the incompletions against Temple was in his direction. He had five TDs (and a sixth against Florida State called back) last year.

“I have to make better decisions down there,” Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer said of the situation. “(Temple’s) a prime example of two situations in which there's check-downs available, there's opportunities to get myself a better play; things like that where I'm going to have to make some adjustments, learn on the fly, continue to develop.

“Our success rate down there isn't where we want it as a team. I believe, as a quarterback, I feel I have a lot to do with that. I'm going to evaluate at film, evaluation my decisions, hopefully be a little more successful down there in the sense of making better decisions.”

So many problems. So many vague solutions.

Would injured running back Tarean Folston have been the most productive option between the tackles when the tough yardage is needed? How ‘bout freshman running back Josh Adams (6-2, 212)? Is Kizer, 6-5 and 230 pounds, the best power runner the Irish have available?

Could a big quarterback be the answer for the tough yards? Cam Newton, with the Carolina Panthers, has proven it can work.

“They seem to like that in Charlotte,” Kelly said. “They think it's OK there. I think in certain situations we're OK with it. But I think we have to be more than one-dimensional with (Kizer).”

It became obvious that Kelly was flustered when he actually gave the media credit for its perspective on the forlorn situation.

“A lot of these questions are good questions,” he said. “We throw them around just like you do, on Sunday when we get together as a staff. Should we get Josh more carries? Big, physical kid in the red zone… All those things are things that we're going through as well.

“You watched the game. You guys are pretty smart. We're thinking about the same things relative to: How can we get better in that area? Is it Josh Adams? Is it the tight end, getting him the ball? It's all those things.

“I think those are all possibilities.”

Kizer isn’t buying into the frustration about how tough the fix might be.

“We have tons of talent at the receiver position, whether it be great route-running,” Kizer said. “We have size, the athletic ability. There's opportunities down there for me to be a little more aggressive, maybe some go-ball throws, trying to fit balls into tight windows that I'm not trying to fit them into.

“Also understanding as a quarterback it gets tighter out there, there's not much room down there. To be able to fully go through a progression to a fourth, fifth read to try to get the ball out of my hands is something I need to work on; having a better cognitive understanding of where the ball should go at what point in time.

“It's unfortunate that we aren't as successful as we are because we have really good game plans for what we have going. But as soon as I get my eyes locked into one guy, one decision, from maybe the game plan we set up all week, once that decision says no, I need to be able to work through my progression and still find a good option.

“When I understand that a play is not going to be the best play called, I have to be able as a quarterback to be able to make a check, have an opportunity to throw maybe a back shoulder ball or something where it's more of an aggressive throw, a higher opportunity for completion, especially with Chris Brown with the vertical (leap) that he has, or Corey Robinson, the size that he has.”

“We'll take some extra time this week,” Kelly said of practice. “We've done some more self-scouting in terms of play-calling, what we're doing down there. At the end of the day, execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, then a little bit more extra practice time.”

Vague solutions to a very precise crisis.

Notre Dame's Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly and Brandon Wimbush (12) watch the Fighting Irish offense from the sidelines during the first half against Temple, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ