Notebook: Notre Dame to spend more time on red-zone offense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly wants Notre Dame’s offense to be better in the red zone.

The Irish head coach wasn’t satisfied with Notre Dame’s performance in that area of the field in Saturday’ 12-7 victory over Louisville. So he spent the next day trying to identify the issues and find solutions.

“There’s a lot of pieces to that, right?” Kelly said Monday after the Irish scored only one touchdown and two field goals on five trips to the red zone against the Cardinals.

“It’s a high level of execution that has to occur. I’ve looked at all the aspects of it over the past 24 hours. We have a plan moving forward. But I don’t think you need to spend much time thinking about anything else other than we’ve got to be better in that area moving forward.”

How Notre Dame’s red-zone efficiency stacks up against the rest of college football is a bit perplexing. The Irish are tied for 60th (out of 77 teams) in the FBS with a scoring rate of 76.2 percent in the red zone with 16 scores on 21 trips to the red zone (within 20 yards of the opponent’s goal line).

Eighteen other teams have had at least 21 drives enter the red zone. But only three have scored as many touchdowns (12) as Notre Dame: Wake Forest (12 of 23), Clemson (13 of 27) and BYU (15 of 29).

Notre Dame’s red zone numbers took a hit in scoring and touchdown percentage following the Louisville game thanks in part to Kelly’s decisions to attempt a fake field goal in the second quarter, which failed, and run out the clock at the end of the game.

In the three previous games, Notre Dame failed to score on three of its 16 trips to the red zone. The first came on an interception thrown by quarterback Ian Book against Duke. The second came on a missed field goal by Jonathan Doerer against South Florida. The third came when Chris Tyree was denied on a fourth-and-goal run from the two-yard line late in the fourth quarter against Florida State with the Irish most concerned with running out the clock.

Even when ruling out the three instances the Irish didn’t score because of coaching decisions — the fake field goal and running the clock out against Louisville and Florida State — Kelly said the Irish haven’t been good enough in the red zone.

Improving that requires a mixture of play calling and execution. The play calls change with less ground to cover against different defensive schemes utilized in the red zone.

“For us, it’s been a lack of detailed execution, and so we have to allocate more time in practice for it and playmakers need to make plays down there as well,” Kelly said. “That’s quarterbacks, receivers, offensive linemen. Coaches have to be able to highlight individual players down there.”

Kelly compared red-zone offense to a power play in hockey. Where sharpshooters need to be in position to score on a power play, playmakers need to be put in position to score in the red zone.

“There’s a bit of a chess match,” Kelly said. “Matchups are important down there.”

A lot of the issues, Kelly said, have come when Notre Dame is farther away from the goal line but still in the red zone.

Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3 ACC) could present a challenge for the Irish in the red zone Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC). The Panthers are tied for 17th in the FBS in red-zone defense in allowing scores on 76.9 percent of red-zone trips. Opposing offenses have scored 10 times with five touchdowns and five field goals.

Pittsburgh has allowed only one rushing touchdown in the red zone. Nine of Notre Dame’s red-zone touchdowns have come on the ground.

“As you get closer, there’s a will down there,” Kelly said. “We think we can run the ball in on anybody down there.”

Road rules

Notre Dame will travel for the first time this season for Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh. The itinerary will look much different than road games in previous years with COVID-19 precautions in place.

Kelly said the team will spend most of Friday as if it were preparing for a home game with meetings, practice and a meal in downtown South Bend. Then the Irish will board a flight to Pittsburgh on Friday night, grab a snack and head to bed at the team hotel.

On Saturday, team members will eat breakfast on their own and the team will hold meetings before heading to Heinz Field. The team will eat a pregame meal at the stadium, play the game, eat a postgame meal on the concourse and then fly back to South Bend on Saturday night.

Kelly said the Irish have been preparing the logistics of their first road trip for a couple weeks.

“If I was just now starting to wrap my head around this trip to Pitt, I might be a little bit overwhelmed, but we’ve been working on it for a good 10 days to two weeks in terms of how we’re putting this together,” Kelly said. “We have a great support staff that has spent a lot of time advancing this and putting it together. I feel pretty good where we are, which allows me to focus on the preparation of our football team, our coaches and players and getting them ready for a really good football team in Pitt.”

One Notre Dame player tested positive for COVID-19 since Monday of last week, the program announced this Monday. That player was placed in isolation and one other player was placed in quarantine as a close contact. No other players are currently in isolation or quarantine.

Extra points

• Notre Dame has yet to name a clear starter at its buck linebacker position. On Monday’s depth chart for the Pittsburgh game, junior Shayne Simon and sophomores Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser were listed as “or” options as the starting buck.

All three have missed at least one game with limitations connected to COVID-19 protocols. Kiser has made the biggest statistical impact with nine tackles and two tackles for a loss in three games with only one start. Simon started two of his three games played and recorded five tackles. Liufau started one game and totaled three tackles in three games.

“It is a competitive situation and all three of them are going to see playing time,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’re at the point of destination where we can say, ‘Hey, this is the guy.’ They all have skill sets. They all can bring things to the game.”

• Kelly said Notre Dame exited the Louisville game with no major injuries to report. Wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, who was unavailable to play Saturday, remains in the program’s concussion protocol.

Wide receiver Braden Lenzy, who played just two snaps against Louisville as he deals with a soft-tissue injury, hasn’t been ruled out for Pittsburgh. Lenzy missed the Duke game with a hamstring issue.

“He’s trying to play,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping he’s going to be better this week.

• Junior running back Jahmir Smith has left the team, Kelly said.

“He’s decided that he’s not going to play football,” Kelly said. “We’ll have some further conversations about what his plans are moving forward. But he’s decided at this time that he is not going to be playing football.”

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Smith hadn’t played in a game since the season opener against Duke in which he recorded five carries for 15 yards. Smith came to the Irish as a three-star running back out of Sanford (N.C.) Lee County in the 2018 class. He played in 10 games last season and rushed 42 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

• Notre Dame will be playing in the 3:30 p.m. EDT slot on ABC in back-to-back weekends. On Monday, the ACC announced Notre Dame’s game at Georgia Tech on Oct. 31 will kick off at the same time as this weekend’s Pittsburgh game.

• Irish running back Kyren Williams was named ACC Rookie of the Week after rushing for 127 yards on 25 carries against Louisville.

Quarterback Ian Book has accounted for eight of Notre Dame’s 12 red-zone touchdowns this season with five rushing touchdowns and three passing touchdowns. Here, Book is shown diving into the end zone for a touchdown against USC last season.

NO. 3 NOTRE DAME (4-0) vs. PITTSBURGH (3-3)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m EDT

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 10 1/2