Notre Dame’s Red Zone Woes Collide with Top-Rated Ohio State Defense

Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame can’t settle for field goals in the red-zone against Ohio State if they want to win on Friday.  Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

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 or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. I have made numerous posts this season, regarding the merits, or lack there of in BK and ND’s team strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to wait for the bowl results to be in to make any final thoughts and summaries:

    BK has clearly improved recruiting, player development, coaching staff quality, and program organization. The fight in 127 is commendable. These improvements though noteworthy, leave SUBSTANTIAL shortcomings. The defense, by ANY analysis, is NOT at a level to compete consistently on a national championship or New Years 6 level, and has not markedly improved season long. Play calling, lack of offensive line dominance, and game management (tenure long, poor short yardage run performance and special teams play, red zone inabilities ) are seriously lacking to compete at such levels. Now if 8-5 to 10-3 is ok with you. then BK is your man. For 60 years plus, ND’s academic and on field excellence has been the standard to which I have grown accustomed ( post Holtz coaches notwithstanding ), so that, is the basis of my opinion. Occasional 8-5/10-3 seasons are understandable, but as a ceiling, they are not.

    Now I will say if the positives mentioned above improve, and the negatives become positives, then BK may be salvageable to those of us that expect ND’s sustained excellence.The wait may be very painful to experience. HE is Not in the elite class of head coaches, period. Good but not great. I will end by saying I am hopeful HE can be that program leader and sustainer…….as I have felt since his arrival, I DO NOT think HE is that man. I am joined by many who love ND dearly and hope I am wrong.

    God Bless ND and the Fighting Irish

  2. Really quick. It’s late and I must sleep. I just read some input above that merits my input. Someone wrote ND’d have to dismiss BK; BK ain’t going nowhere. I totally, TOTALLY agree. BK doesn’t have “the chops” for an NFL job – the stature that is necessary to command over-grown brats who make more money than god. Lacks respectability as a pro. So that’s why ND’d have to dismiss BK. And BK is politically-savvy-enough NOT to piss-off the administration. 5-years hence? Don’t know – things change. But as of now ND is 4-points-away from being the #2 team in the country. (Tosu schooled us)

  3. Bruce I would disagree. There are always going to be a few who step out of line. This is not the first time ND has had issues and sent players home.

    If he did not have the players’ respect there would have been a lot less fight in that team as the game wore on.

    I think just the opposite, he has the team but there are still some bad apples that don’t get it.

  4. I definitely hope BK stays at ND but my gut feeling is he bolts for the NFL. He has got to be fed up with all the off the field shenanigans he has had to deal with during his watch. Teo catfished, Golson cheating, the fab 5 cheating scandal, redfield and tillery sent home just to name a few . Sure would like to know what team rules Redfield and Tillery violated.

  5. George, it was not no reason. There are rules that BK has and all the players know the rules. When you break those there are consequences.

    BK is not the first Irish coach to send players home before a bowl game or a big game.

    If BK loses recruits over that, then they don’t understand what it takes to be a student and athlete at Notre Dame.

    The story should not be that the Irish were down 2 players because Kelly practices what he preaches. Rather it should be the sorry example of Urban Meyer again dealing with issues with players and the law by burying his head in the sand and ignoring it.

    You can be sure that if Deshone Kizer had been involved in an accident and cited on multiple counts and allowed to play it would have been the headlines all week and a never story during the game.

  6. Everyone keeps talking about the recruits that this bowl game could attract. I wonder what those recruits think about Notre Dame suspending half their team for no reason

  7. I am disappointed with the loss, but think that Notre Dame is moving forward. Overcoming the injuries and beating Ohio St. today would have been huge, but in reality unlikely. I believe that the recruiting class this year will fill major needs and with the return of Adams, Kizer, Fuller (?), along with Folston, the other receivers, and Zaire, the offense will score at will next year.

    The problem will be with the defense. They miss big time playmakers on defense (12 turnovers?). A lot of players will have to step up for ND to be elite next year. Dru Tranquil will have to come back strong, Redfield will have to live up to his potential, Trambetti and Tillery will have to become more consistent, Nyles Morgan will have to make a huge step up and hopefully Nick Watkins may build on his play today. The defensive backs may go from a weakness to a strength next year.

    The schedule is a lot lighter this coming year and I see the Irish as a favorite in every game. The trick, again, will be being able to play against the likes of Alabama next year. Don’t know if that happens with a suspect defense, but maybe I’m missing something.

  8. Keep the sign denoting national titles up, SFR. It reminds them of the excellence that preceded them and keeps their eye on the prize. ND needs to get better, especially on D’, but all is far from hopeless.
    They play w/ relentless effort and never give up. A slew of star HS athletes are on the way who can play. The cupboard won’t be bare in 2016.
    No doubt the loss to injury of #9 Jaylon was huge; then Trevon. Grace competed, but I guess Niles Morgan can only play Schmidt’s position, which means on special teams and not playing at all from scrimmage this year, regardless of down, distance or circumstance.
    Credit tOSU early game plan of opening up his offense to get Jaylon out of the box, then throwing quick outlet passes before letting his OL dominate the rest of the game. Use the pass to open up the run? That’s not what old-schoolers want to see – but it often is what winning teams do instead.Not having #10 Redfield,the #3 leading tackler, was felt, but that was BKs choice. Therein identifies a problem, when two of your leading tacklers are safeties, the front seven are too often getting beat. Until the front seven on D’ improves greatly(and without Shumate, Day and probably Jaylon), ND will have to win like Baylor, Oklahoma, and OK. State do, scoring forty or more! I had been hoping scoring 31 and still not being done would be enough. Not against tOSU and Stanford. As for Clemson, that loss is on the O’. Starting better in big games would help.

    When ND ran the ball today, gang tackling was frequent; not so much when tOSU ran the ball.

    Unless I’m dyslexic, the latest “next-man-in”, CB #21 Watkins plays better pass coverage and tackles better than the “next-man-in” who was in ahead of him, #12. As with many “next-men-in” having great success this year (Kizer, Adams, Prosise, I gotta wonder how good Fr.CB and Ohioan Coleman is! Re: Prosise, I hope he returns- it’s sad his HS coach didn’t see him as a RB- it’s sadder that it took BK and staff three years to get him at the position he belonged.Injuries create opportunity, but it makes me wonder how many “next-men-in” who haven’t got the chance (Morgan and who knows who else) might shine. After this season, I wonder more.
    Dominance on both sides of the LOS by tOSU was key. Even without three starters on their DL, they controlled the LOS against NDs OL, and our DL. But the greatest deficit between tOSU and ND was kick coverage- nothing new @ ND this century, at least.
    Sorry to see some of these ND players leaving on such a disappointing loss.
    Shumate excelled, making tackles all over the field. Amir developed into a very reliable possession receiver and you gotta love the heart of a gimpy Sheldon Day today, and all career long.
    Fare thee well, and take your degree proudly with you. It’s been a pleasure watching you develop and compete throughout your careers as student-athletes as well, not just semi-pro players who are on a major college team.

  9. Elliot typically got his first 10 yards UNTOUCHED, which is obviously a huge indictment on the ND front 7. Seriously though, we should have never expected much out of a defense that starts a slow, small, weak walk-on at middle LB. Then on the flip side, OSUs second string dominated NDs OL which everyone seemed so proud of. Ideally, ND should strive for 9 win seasons. 10 wins is too many, as it leads to a great deal of bowl game embarrassment. BK can only do so much against his own administration which clearly doesn’t give a rip about winning

  10. Iowa in the Rose Bowl would also have been an advantageous match up for ND.

    Clearly Stanford has figured out how to play in bowl games and win.

    I don’t know what BK’s problem is, but he just doesn’t seem to have his teams prepared to play in big games, especially at the start of them.

  11. BK will have to leave for the NFL first. He’s not getting fired. Frankly, his record is too good for that.

    After the other Kelly did so poorly with the Iggles, I doubt BK and his O style will be in much demand.

    BK, his staff, and the ND administration need to decide if they want to win or play holier than thou. ND need not sell its soul to the devil by showing its recruits and current players some charity. These are young men who need mentoring for sure. However, Ohio St. has a starting RB who was arrested a few days before the game while ND is suspending starters for what exactly.

    There are only one or two players on ND’s team that would crack the Ohio St. 2-deep. And then BK suspends most of them.

    ND is fast approaching the point of no return of perpetual mediocrity. Yes, winning 8 to 10 games and getting beat every time in big games, especially in January, is mediocre. If you want to settle for barely cracking the top 20 or top 25 after the season, if that’s OK with you, then go root for that other glorified Ivy League team with a Chicago fan base that also got blown out today– i.e., Northwestern.

    Enough already! I want to see ND football back among the greats. Not just some footnote in a history book.

    Perhaps it’s time for ND football to remove that sign in their locker room with the national titles. That’s ancient history. Time for new ND teams to write their own history and not live in the past all the time.


  12. SteelFanRob,
    You make many points of consideration that I feel myself, especially as I posted earlier, level of talent. It’s clear that ND has to get better talent, much more 4 and 5 star recruits. Right now, ND is not competing on an even playing field, by its own choice. I agree SteelFan, it may be time to look at some flexibility in admissions and create betterment opportunities for some young men who may not be completely on par academically but by being allowed in to play & attend a great institution of learning and in turn, contribute to the football team. I know that isn’t a popular sentiment with many on this site but play & results since 1996 after Holtz’s leaving have proven this to be true, in my opinion. I know Stanford has done well being in a similar situation but they have great weather to help attract their personnel. I guess the other thing I would throw out is have Sanford call plays. I doubt that will happen.

  13. The ND trenches, OL and front 7, are seriously over-rated. They get dominated every time they go up against better opposition than Wake Forest or UMass. Ohio St. was without its top 3 DL for almost all of this game and the OL still got manhandled. The last fumble was a snapshot of the gutless OL play with the over-hyped Stanley getting bullrushed right into D. Kizer. It’s pointless to even talk about the D play. It speaks for itself. Other than Trumbetti no other DL or LB played worth a damn.

    After the first seven or eight minutes it wasn’t a matter of whether ND would get beat; it was a matter of how much they would get beat by. Yet once more BK has his team play scared and flat to start a big game. This is a sickening pattern for BK’s teams who have lost every truly big game they’ve played in under BK.

    The BK tenure at ND is effectively over. He’ll win a lot of games but will never get ND over the hump. I hope Burgy can bring this up next season to prove me and others wrong. I really would love nothing more than to have to eat my words. But nothing in BK’s track-record at ND would prove otherwise. If you disagree, then your operating on blind faith. BK will also get outcoached by the Meyers and Sabans every time.

    It’s quite clear that ND is not anywhere close to the elite teams. In a big game in January ND can’t even compete. Bama would’ve scored fifty and shut out ND. ND football is fast becoming a glorified Ivy League team in comparison with the BCS elite.

    I said it before the bowl games were announced, ND would’ve been much better off playing NW or UF. They could’ve possibly beat those teams. Ohio St. was simply going to be too much for ND. So be it.

    In the end too many 3 star recruits getting whipped too often by too many 5 star recruits.

    ND football has some soul searching to do. It has to decide whether it wants to remain relevant or slip into Ivy League level. It’s time to look at bringing back some Holtz-era flexibility when it comes to recruiting elite talent. If not, ND is doomed to flounder in its holier than thou ways. ND has been charitable in the past with these young men, perhaps a little bit of that openness now would help.

  14. Losing sucks but I am not going to bitch and gripe and blame injuries. The better team won and unfortunately it wasn’t the Irish. Spring ball is 3 months away and it will be interesting to see where our QB situation is as a result. What I think was evident was personnel athleticism. ND has a lot of good but fewer great and minimal superior rated personnel. Though that has improved with upgrades moving from marginal to good personnel, we have to get even better personnel if we are going to compete with Alabama’s,OSU’s, etc. I question if ND can get more great and superior personnel. This was evident especially on the defensive side regarding personnel and I am not going to blame injury completely but had a contributing factor. BVG has another season to get better personnel and scheme to better efficiency. If that side does not upgrade for 2016 season, it’s time to replace him after 3 seasons. I speculate that Zaire is still more multidimensional than Kizer so it will be interesting how spring shapes up. An opportunity presented itself and unfortunately, the Irish did not capitalize on it today to beat OSU. Time to move on and prepare for 2016. Yes, a major bowl win would have it made it more enjoyable, for sure.

  15. Whatever happened with Tillery is very disappointing. The Irish (once again) did not look well prepared today. What did they work on with those 15 practices?

  16. Kizer picked an interesting time to have his worst game by far. wild overthrows, head scratching worm burners, careless INTs, fumbles, taking sacks

  17. I do agree with Jeff that the offense has to do better. They are in much better shape than the defense right now. For the Irish to have a chance, the offense is going to have to carry the day. They’ve shows some flashes and they’ve shown they can beat OSU’s defense. They are going to have to keep that going.

  18. OSU lost both their DTs before the game and then Bosa. ND should be scoring on every possession now. Then pray OSU turns it over somehow, which is unlikely against such a hapless ND defense. Maybe BK should suspend some more defenders then complain about his defense at halftime

  19. Disappointing game thus far, though the last score was big, as it keeps the game manageable. Hopefully they make some adjustments. Not sure what they can do on defense with a number of key players out. I still think adapting to a bend but don’t break would be the way to go, though OSU has a lot of talent on offense so that may not even be enough.

    One thing the Irish need to do in the offseason is look at why we’ve had so many injuries for a second year in a row. I have no doubt they have been costly. Individual injuries happen in football, that’s the name of the game. But why, WHY has ND been beset by so many crucial injuries to key players. Do they need to change their conditioning, their practices? It almost seems like every game we’re losing a key player.

    I have faith that the team will not quit until the clock reads 0. That is one improvement BK did make over Weis. They will keep playing. Will it be enough? My heart wants to say yes but my brain says no. But all they can do is keep playing their game the best way they can, and not make costly mistakes.

  20. This is turning out to be worse than the loss to Alabama. I get the defensive woes with all the injuries and what not. The offense has no excuses.

  21. He might as well as jet, because a year like this one is about as good as it gets at ND. Beat the mediocre teams, lose close to the good teams, simply not capable of beating great teams

  22. Embarrassing start for the Irish. First play from scrimmage for the Irish and Kizer slides when he could’ve picked up three more yards. Your 6’4″ 230. Run the frickn ball with a purpose

  23. Subway alum
    I believe Zaire will regain his starting job if the ankle injury doesn’t cause him to lose a step or two. Kizer is a good QB but Zaire is still the best Read Option QB on the team. I think part of the problem this year was the Red Zone offense was tailored for Zaire’s abilities and when he went out RZ efficiency plummeted.
    If you watched during the season. Zaire seemed to be joined at the hip with Sandford up in the booth because they didn’t want him sidelines and taking a chance for further injury. It’s bad he didn’t get to play but I have suspicion that when he does come back, he’s going to have an insight into the offense that neither Kizer or Wimbush have. There’s been reports that when he was on the sideline he gave Kizer some pointers on what the defense was doing and how to counter it.

    I just read where Tillery has been suspended this game for violation of team rules. I don’t know what the hell these kids are thinking about. The night before one of the biggest games of the year and they can’t follow the rules for a few more days? I can’t imagine the frustration the coaches feel when this happens. Hope this isn’t indicative of things to come from Tillery.

  24. jeff,


    Both BK and Mike Dumblin seem to lose to bad teams very often. Brothers from a different mother perhaps?!



  25. First, pete, totally agree with all that you said. Urban blight is planning something for us, so should Kelly.

    Looking back at the Clemson game, as they lined up for the final play for 2 pts, i thought… “think Fla State, only no penalties this time”. I couldn’t believe the call. As much as i love Kiser’s coolness, he’s a little slow on decisiveness when he’s supposed to run the ball.

    But, how does the author paint Zaire with the same brush as the others…how many failed red zone attempts has he had in his brief ND career? I’m thinking, next year, Zaire takes over in the red zone. Kelly has a big problem next year getting them both equal time, but red zone s/b Zaire’s.

  26. Kelly is bringing in top elite talent- no doubt. I think he needs a more power running game in the red zone. For example, 2 backs, 2 or 3 tight ends, some quarterback under center, some misdirection, creativity. Not sure what is going on with the defense. Secondary doesn’t look back for the ball, poor technique, fundamentals, communication issues, poor tackling. Really need to examine and fix these things in the off season.

  27. Are you telling me that only now, after 5 years, BK and his staff realize that Red Zone O is a problem?! If so, that’s unacceptable. If not, then what’s been the continuing problem and why haven’t BK and Co. been able to fix it? Either way, for a guru of O football, this on-going situation is unacceptable and an indictment of BK and/or his schemes.

    I just hope that this Red Zone problem gets fixed ASAP. At least, that way, we can say better late than never!

    As for the idea that BK has ND football on the brink, I agree. The question, however, is on the brink of what? Greatness? 10-win seasons but no more? Average football? Mediocrity?

    I have a feeling that this game will end up determining BK’s tenure. A close defeat and I think looking back we’ll say that BK’s tenure was successful but not great. Win and I see ND football taking a huge step toward greatness. Lose big, however, and I fear that, at the end of the day, BK might not recover.

    Thus, and please excuse the apocalyptic tone, this is a huge and determining game for BK and ND football for the immediate future.

    Go Irish!

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