For all the intricate storylines making the Ohio State and Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl pairing an even more attractive matchup, and the multiple elements that need to be present for the Fighting Irish to pull off an upset, perhaps no piece of the Ohio State puzzle is more critical to Notre Dame than red zone production. And if head coach Brian Kelly has an answer to that puzzle, he’s kept it close to the vest since his arrival in South Bend six years ago.
The failure to produce in the red zone has been an unwelcomed cornerstone of the Irish offense in recent years. Since 2013 – which is as far back as the NCAA’s individual team statistics go – Notre Dame has never been ascended higher than No. 70 nationally in red zone production, and currently ranks No. 90. The disturbing trend does not bode well for an Irish team that will soon square off against an Ohio State offense averaging 35 points per game, and a defense that is No. 10 overall and No. 6 nationally in points surrendered.
The significance of those lopsided numbers is not lost on Kelly.
“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,” Kelly told the media during one of his bowl press conferences. “(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.”
While Notre Dame recognizes the red zone to be a problem, the strategy to address it is concerning. Brian Kelly elaborated on the red zone issues by discussing the importance of fundamentals.
“I think that’s really what this time is about,” Kelly said when discussing bowl preparation. “Before you really drill deep into your game planning, go back, work your fundamentals, and then specifically kind of tune up on some deficiencies.”
Notre Dame’s lack of success inside the 20-yard line goes far deeper than more time devoted to fundamentals and has plagued every quarterback under center since Kelly’s arrival, from Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. The red zone has become Notre Dame’s Bermuda Triangle, an area where its high-functioning offense becomes disoriented and loses all sense of identity.
The numbers tell the story. Kelly’s offense has 10 touchdowns of 50 yards or more this season, the most since Notre Dame last won a national championship in 1988. Brian Kelly has managed to instill the explosive offenses he was known for at previous coaching stops Cincinnati and Central Michigan, with the lone caveat that it can only be fired from a distance.
As poor as the red zone performance was in Notre Dame’s regular season finale against Stanford – the Irish were forced to settle for three field goals in the first half and turned the ball over once deep in Cardinal territory – a glimmer of hope emerged. When Notre Dame needed a touchdown the most with the game on the line, quarterback DeShone Kizer was able to power his way into the end zone from two yards out. Whether or not the final offensive drive – although it failed to secure an Irish victory – can be a catalyst of change for Notre Dame’s multiple year red zone drought is the big question mark heading into the Fiesta Bowl.
Kelly’s team has the necessary pieces in place to upend Urban Meyer and his defending national championship squad. The difference between the programs is Notre Dame has far less margin for error, and that starts with scoring touchdowns in the red zone. How well Notre Dame produces inside the 20-yard line early in the game will provide a huge clue for Irish fans as to how the rest of the game will go.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.