Notre Dame's red-zone issues will be priority for DeShone Kizer

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a frontier that DeShone Kizer will be mandated to conquer between now and the end of the calendar year.

It’s those 20 yards of football field in front of the enemy’s end zone that have been giving the Notre Dame quarterback so many problems this season.

One of Kizer’s assignments before his Fiesta Bowl opportunity against Ohio State on New Year’s Day is to clean up the mistakes that have often clogged up the Irish offense this season.

“What we'll try to do is go back and look at some of the things that clearly are areas of need, and we'll probably start in the red zone,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of his plan for Kizer in the weeks leading up to the bowl game. “(We’ll) get to work on some things that we need to really get defined and some areas of improvement; spend a little bit more time down there working on some specific things that we want to get better at.

“Then probably just go back and work fundamentals and be really solid in the fundamentals in all areas. I think that's really what this time is about before you really drill deep into your game-planning; go back, work your fundamentals, and then specifically kind of tune up on some deficiencies.

“We've got to expose (Kizer) to a little bit more red zone work and then get to work on Ohio State.”

While ranking no lower than No. 37 in all the major offensive categories, the one smudge on Notre Dame’s resume comes in the red zone. The Irish rank 89th in red zone efficiency, ironically tied with Ohio State. They have been in the red zone 50 times and have scored on 40 – 16 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing TDs and 12 field goals.

The Buckeye defense is No. 32 in the red zone.

Three field goals that should have been touchdowns hurt Notre Dame against Stanford. Two interceptions and a fumble made the win over Boston College appear less convincing.

In other words, there’s work to be done.

Kizer, no longer a college football pup with 10 starts under his belt, is able to verbalize the challenge ahead of him leading up to the bowl game.

“It’s all decision-making (in the red zone),” said Kizer, putting the brunt of the responsibility on his shoulders. “Everyone knows the window’s shrinking. There’s not a lot of space to make things happen. On my part, when I’m thinking about the red zone, I’m thinking about opportunities that I could lower my shoulder and gain an extra yard, or opportunities to run through an arm tackle.

“It’s not anything that is a big, mind-blowing experience. It’s more along the lines of having a new sense of grittiness to get that extra yard when you’re down there. We saw against Stanford, one yard can completely change the game.”

One yard and 30 seconds, that is.

Kizer and his teammates rode the roller coaster of emotions that made the final minutes of the Stanford game memorable. He climaxed an 88-yard, 15-play drive by bulling over from the 2-yard line for a touchdown that gave the Irish a 36-35 lead with 30 seconds left in the game.

The play was reviewed to see if Kizer came up short on his first-down plunge. The TD stood. Had he been ruled down inches from the goal line, the Irish could have chewed up more clock before their next attempt, leaving the Stanford offense fewer seconds to get in position for a game-winning field goal.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

“It was different for me. It was really different,” Kizer said of his processing of the loss to the Cardinal. “Typically, I’m able to get over a game in a week or so, but not having a game to prepare for, you start thinking about things quite a bit. For the last couple weeks, I started to replay red-zone situations.

“It’s definitely a good learning process. It’s something that I love the fact that I can sit here and go through the red-zone opportunities and figure out how we’re going to go about it in the upcoming game.

“(Stanford) was a rough game to be a part of, but it’s been something I could learn from and will continue to learn from.”

Now there’s one more chance to get it right.

And to navigate that rugged frontier.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) looks to pass during the first half of the Notre Dame-Boston College NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN