Notre Dame v Michigan

Red zone woes need fixing on both sides of the ball


After playing twelve sterling games where just about no offense could crack Notre Dame defense’s red zone code, it’s been an ugly stretch for Bob Diaco’s troops. First, Alabama bludgeoned them inside the 20 in the BCS Championship game, turning all five of their appearances into touchdowns. Now Michigan has done just about the same, with Devin Gardner cashing in Michigan’s four appearances for touchdowns.

Apologies to Temple, but that’s 9 for 9 for 63 points against the last two “real” opponents of the Irish. And while the defense certainly has some deficiencies it needs to fix between the 20s as well, if the Irish are going to rebound from this loss and meet their goals of making this a BCS season, they’ll need to fix both sides of the ball in the scoring zones.

We’ll get into some of the things the defense needs to tweak later, but one area of concern for Irish fans has been the play-calling in the red zone. As Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi pointed out, Notre Dame is a whopping 1-10 when forced to throw the football at least 50 times in a game.

The Irish’s heavy hand in the passing game could have been dictated by a variety of reasons. The most obvious is falling behind by two scores. Another could be the different defensive looks Greg Mattison gave Tommy Rees and the Irish offense. Yet a season after living within the team’s offensive constraints and almost being forced to rely on a strong run game, Saturday night the Irish seemed to give up on it, especially when it got in the scoring area.

The Irish got incredibly pass happy when they found their way into scoring position, a knock that isn’t new to Kelly’s preferred play-calling. Last season, the Irish struggled mightily in the red zone, finishing a woeful 112th in the country in converting appearances into touchdowns at 48 percent. As one of the team’s chief offseason priorities, Kelly spoke during fall camp about Tommy Rees’ improvement in the red zone, yet the Irish’s struggled to convert appearances into points, scoring just two touchdowns in their five appearances in Ann Arbor.

After running for better than five yards a carry, the Irish all but abandoned the ground in the red zone. The numbers are ugly. Of the thirteen plays the Irish ran at or inside Michigan’s 20 yard-line, twelve of them were passes.

Here’s a breakdown of those plays:

1st and Goal at MICH 10 Amir Carlisle rush for 6 yards to the Mich 4.
2nd and Goal at MICH 4 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to DaVaris Daniels.
3rd and Goal at MICH 4 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 4 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

1st and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to George Atkinson III.
2nd and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones.
3rd and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass complete to Amir Carlisle for 4 yards to the Mich 7.

1st and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass complete to Troy Niklas for 20 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

3rd and 2 at MICH 15 Tommy Rees pass complete to DaVaris Daniels for a loss of 2 yards to the Mich 17.
4th and 4 at MICH 17 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones.

1st and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to Chris Brown.
2nd and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 7 yards to the Mich 13.
3rd and 3 at MICH 13 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 7 yards to the Mich 6 for a 1ST down.
1st and Goal at MICH 6 Tommy Rees pass intercepted by Blake Countess at the Mich 0, returned for no gain for a touchback.

Without knowing play calls or quarterback reads, it’s difficult to speak unequivocally about the decision to abandon the run in the part of the field where it’s most difficult to throw the football. But if the Irish want to improve their scoring efficiency in the red zone, using the run game to supplement the passing attack would be a good idea.

Tommy Rees didn’t play poorly on Saturday night, making one regrettable throw before the half that gave Michigan the football back in good scoring position. But Rees’ numbers in the red zone were 5 of 12 for 40 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT. (Rees had both good luck and bad luck in the red zone, completing a tipped ball in the end zone for both a touchdown and an interception.)

It’s not hard to think back to Alabama’s punishing running game in the red zone to wonder why the Irish don’t take to the ground instead of the air when trying to score, especially with a quarterback that’s not exactly a running threat. Michigan did the same thing, running twice and throwing twice on their first red zone TD (also buoyed by a KeiVarae Russell pass interference), sandwiching a run between two passes on their second, running to set up the pass on their third red zone touchdown to extend the lead to 34-20, and then running twice versus three passes (two that resulted in pass interference calls) before the game was essentially iced on Drew Dileo’s touchdown on a slant.

If we’re to learn anything here, the first is stop committing pass interference penalties. But the second may be to add some diversity to the offensive playcalling inside the red zone, where the default looks too often to be a pass.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”