The difference statistically and in personnel both players and coaches is stark.
Under offensive coordinator Chip Long in 2019, the Irish were able to score touchdowns at will in the red zone, capitalizing on 51 penetrations of the 20-yard line with 40 touchdowns (78.4 percent) during the 2019 regular season.
Since Tommy Rees took over as coordinator for the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State, and then was named to the full-time position beginning with the start of the 2020 season, the Irish have penetrated the goal line just 14-of-25 times (56.0 percent), including a 12-of-21 mark (57.1 percent) through four games this season and just 1-of-5 in the 12-7 victory over Louisville this past Saturday.
There are a lot of pieces to red-zone offense, said Irish head coach Brian Kelly Monday. Its a high level of execution that has to occur.
Ive looked at all the aspects of it over the past 24 hours. We have a plan moving forward. I dont think you need to spend much time thinking about anything else than weve got to be better in that area moving forward.
It wasnt like the Irish offense was stagnant against Louisville. They only had seven possessions, and five of them covered 61, 76, 90, 66 and 57 yards. But two field goals and the failed fake field goal resulted in just six first-half points.
To be fair, there are some extenuating circumstances that have contributed to the drastic reduction in red-zone efficiency since Long departed the program. Notre Dame had iced the victory over Iowa State when a couple of fourth-quarter red-zone opportunities failed, the first of which looked like a poor running route to the end zone by quarterback Ian Book.
This season, without red-zone weapons Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet, the Irish personnel particularly at wide receiver has been lacking, and not just in the red zone. Notre Dames inability to score from distance makes it more likely the Irish have to score from the red zone.
Notre Dames 21 red-zone appearances is tied for the 12th most trips across the 20-yard line, and 11 of the 19 ahead of or tied with the Irish in red-zone attempts have played more games than Notre Dame.
Additionally, as Kelly pointed out, two of the failed efforts to score a touchdown in the red zone this year came on a failed fake field goal and the kneel down at the end of the Louisville game inside the red zone. And yet the fake field goal that should have/could have been a field goal would have been an unsuccessful attempt to score a touchdown on the first three downs. Even excluding the kneel down against the Cardinals, it still would have been just a 25 percent touchdown conversion rate.
Its 16-of-21in the red zone, said Kelly, referencing times theyve scored as opposed to touchdowns in the red zone. Thats still not good enough. So this isnt to explain away anything, but we need to be better. Weve examined every area and theres a lot of pieces to that.
Scoring in the red zone, particularly when you havent fully developed the personnel to be successful within the first four games of the season, can be tricky. To a large extent, defenses gain the advantage in the red zone because theres less real estate for an offense to maneuver. A defenses approach changes as well.
Play-calling changes down there because defenses change down there, Kelly said. Teams tend to get in either man-coverage or bracket-coverage, so there is a change in where you are on the field.
For us, its been a lack of execution, detailed execution. So we have to allocate more time in practice for it, and playmakers need to make plays down there as well. Thats quarterbacks, receivers, offensive linemen and coaches have to be able to highlight individual players down there.
Its a power play in the sense that youve got to put your sharpshooters in position to score down there.
And yet an advantage the Irish have this year that wasnt nearly as prevalent last year is an offensive line that is a legitimate contender for the Joe Moore Award, which signifies the nations top unit. Its an award Notre Dame won in 2017 with tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson spearheading the attack.
With all five starters returning in 2020, Notre Dames offensive line has become a thrashing machine, albeit against lesser competition. That should be a huge boost to the red-zone offense. A late opportunity to punch it in against Florida State would have bumped up the percentage a bit more.
Now, the Irish face the ultimate challenge this weekend with their trip to Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3). The Panthers are No. 1 in the country against the run (61.5 ypg.), No. 1 in yards per carry (1.85), and No. 5 in red-zone touchdown percentage at 38.4 percent (five touchdowns on 13 red-zone entries).
Theres a bit of a chess match, Kelly said. Matchups are important down there. As you get closer, theres a will down there. We think we can run the ball in on anybody down there.
You can imagine that my attention is 100 percent on (how) thats got to be better. Well work diligently to make sure it is.
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