Red zone woes need fixing on both sides of the ball

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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.