SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense is averaging 36.5 points per game, 22nd among FBS teams. But coach Brian Kelly & Co. have identified a weakness they believe is holding this group back from becoming an elite point-scoring machine.
The Irish have reached the red zone 33 times in eight games but only scored touchdowns on 19 of those possessions, a rate of 57.6 percent that ranks 85th among FBS teams. Against Temple, DeShone Kizer’s two red zone interceptions forced Notre Dame to execute a last-minute fourth quarter drive to pull ahead of the Owls and remain in the College Football Playoff discussion.
If Notre Dame were, like its scoring offense, 22nd among FBS teams in red zone touchdown percentage (Navy and East Carolina are tied at No. 22 with a 69.7 percent red zone touchdown rate), it’d have four more touchdowns over eight games. That’s a significant total, one that maybe doesn’t swing things in their favor against Clemson, but does make wins over Virginia and Temple a little more comfortable.
“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.”
Notre Dame’s offense is good enough to keep it in the College Football Playoff race, though, given the big-play abilities of Kizer, running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller. And it’s worth noting Notre Dame is averaging 5.03 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, 48th nationally, because of those explosive plays. Notre Dame has six touchdowns of 21 to 40 yards, helping mask some of those those deficiencies inside the 20.
Still, if Notre Dame converted four more of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns, it’d be averaging 40 points per game, which would rank 11th, sandwiched between Oregon and Clemson.
“I got to make better decisions down there,” Kizer said. “(Temple) is a prime example of two situations in which there's check-downs available, there's opportunities to get myself better play, things like that where I'm going to have to make some adjustments, learn on the fly, continue to develop.”
Kizer, both as a passer and runner, may be the key to improving Notre Dame’s red zone efficiency over its final four games. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman is solid in short-yardage situations — where Prosise has struggled — and drew an off-hand comparison to former Auburn and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from Kelly when asked if Kizer could be the guy to pick up those necessary two or three yards, either on third down or near the goal line.
But as we saw against Clemson, when Kizer was stuffed for no gain on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt, it’s not all on the quarterback. Red zone touchdowns are the product of an entire team doing its job — and if it’s not, turnovers and field goals inside the 20 could continue to limit how good the Irish offense can be.
“It really requires all players to be functioning together,” Kelly said. “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 precision and 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.”