SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense was more than good enough to steer it to 10 wins and a Fiesta Bowl berth in 2015. This was a unit that ranked sixth in yards per play (7.02), 10th in explosiveness (1.40 IsoPPP) and 23rd in efficiency (45.7 percent success rate).
But come off a season in which three losses happened, there’s room for improvement. The 19-point showing at Clemson was an outlier due to the confluence of a hurricane and massive weather system over South Carolina, and Notre Dame’s loss at Stanford was far more the product of a shaky defense — though there were some missed opportunities by the offense.
What Notre Dame wants to see in the coming months is its offense take that next step from being very good to elite. That process began with the start of spring practice last month, with an emphasis on situational improvements — the sort of narrow focus a team can take when its offensive foundation is set.
“The separation between us being in a good offense and us being in an outstanding, championship-level offense is what we do in situations,” offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said. “So we’re charting everything from a third down standpoint, from a red zone standpoint, from a two-minute standpoint.”
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Notre Dame had a solid 42.5 third down conversion rate last year (39th in FBS) and was generally successful running its two-minute, hurry-up offense. But the offensive output was muted somewhat by issues in the red zone — Notre Dame scored on 81.1 percent of its possessions inside its opponents’ 20-yard line (88th) and scored touchdowns just 58.5 percent of the time (79th).
Settling for field goals is one thing; turning the ball over near the end zone is another. For all the quality work DeShone Kizer & Co. put in last year, Justin Yoon had to kick 12 field goals from red zone positions (he hit 11 of those, missing only a 34-yarder in Week 2 at Virginia).
The only game where those red zone issues affected the outcome was Stanford, where Yoon connected on field goals from 25, 26 and 29 yards in that gutting two-point loss. Notre Dame’s offense still scored 36 points that day, but turning three points into seven points in just one of those red zone trips would’ve gone a long way toward putting less pressure on the defense and flipping that game from a loss to a win.
Coach Brian Kelly admitted having a first-time starter in Kizer didn’t help with red zone decision-making, and said achieving a better run/pass balance inside the 20 should help improve on last year’s results.
“Red zone efficiency is running the football and having a quarterback who is experienced down in that zone,” Kelly said. “It’s not really scheme down there as much as quick decisions, being efficient, accurate and then having a really good running game.”
It wasn’t just possessions in the red zone that stifled the Irish offense, though. Strangely, even with an elite offensive line, a 1,000-yard rusher, a record-setting freshman running back and a 6-foot-4, 230 pound quarterback, the Irish saw mediocre results in short-yardage situations. Notre Dame’s power success rate (how often a team gains necessary yardage in obvious running situations) was 66.7 percent, 58th nationally. About one in every five runs was stuffed for no gain or a loss, too.
But here’s the problem facing Notre Dame’s efforts to become that championship-level offense: It’s in the process of replacing its three leading receivers (Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle), its most effective running back (C.J. Prosise) and its three most experienced offensive linemen (Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer).
That means not only will Kizer or Malik Zaire have to be more efficient in the red zone, but guys like Tarean Folston, Torii Hunter Jr., Alize Jones and Alex Bars will have to make strides to push the Irish offense to where it wants to be.