Sanford: "It's Touchdowns or Check Downs"

Notre Dame's 2014 offense accrued yardage -- and touchdowns -- at a level reached by just three previous Irish squads of the last quarter-century. But far too many points were left on the table as a result of red zone turnovers.

Live scrimmage work was the order of the day last Saturday at the LaBar Practice Fields.

Both quarterbacks, Everett Golson and Malik Zaire donned blue jerseys that deemed them suitable for contact and tackling. Both executed impressive plays commensurate with those seen previously under the watchful eye of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

And both made mistakes he considered uncharacteristic of the offense's prior outings.

"The turnovers were very uncharacteristic of spring. We had a couple early in the first days of practice, but very few," said Sanford of interceptions thrown Saturday by both Golson and Zaire. "We hadn't turned the ball over at that position in eight or nine practices, which is what you're looking for. That's not a pat-ourselves-on-the-back thing, that's an expectation. We don't turn the ball over at that position."

Sanford's proclamation was for the present/future, because Irish quarterbacks, Golson in particular and Tommy Rees before him, certainly didn't fulfill that stated goal.

Twenty-two by Golson, with 14 interceptions and 8 fumbles lost (12 total fumbles) on 541 touches last fall, plus another six picks and four fumbles lost (eight total fumbles) on 412 touches in his rookie season of 2012.

(Previously, Rees turned over the pigskin 41 times on 1,102 career pass/rush attempts. Regarded as a "fumbler" his first two seasons, with six lost fumbles and eight overall between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Rees did not fumble as a junior or senior at Notre Dame.)

"The other part of it was one of those turnovers was given out in a very inopportune time," Sanford continued of his scrimmage analysis, speaking specifically of a red zone misfire by Zaire, tipped by Jaylon Smith and intercepted by Max Redfield. "We have to be a better situational football team, especially our quarterback. When we're in the red zone, we have three points in our back pocket. You can't jeopardize those three points by making a bad decision as it pertains to the coverage given to us.

"That was discouraging, that was something we hadn't seen out of those guys in quite awhile, but it was a little bit of a performance anxiety curve. It was the first time they had been live and you see some decisions that they hadn't made in a practice environment. That's why you practice in front of people; this game is made to be played in front of people. And it's made to be played in front of the media. We love the opportunity to be scrutinized.

"We'd take it without the turnovers."

Notre Dame's promising 2014 season was waylaid by myriad factors, one of which was its red zone failures. Head coach Brian Kelly's fifth-edition Irish offense ranked No. 32 nationally at 449 yards per game, but its red zone ranking -- 80th out of 125 FBS teams -- negated much of those yards gained.

It has been a common theme of Kelly's tenure in South Bend. That is, yards don't equal points.

2010: 46 red zone trips, 26 TD, 12 field goals, #49 national ranking
2011: 48 red zone trips, 32 TD, 5 field goals, #88 national ranking
2012: 60 red zone trips, 29 TD, 19 field goals, #70 national ranking
2013: 45 red zone trips, 24 TD, 12 field goals, #77 national ranking
2014: 62 red zone trips, 40 TD, 10 field goals, #80 national ranking

In 2014, Kelly's offense produced more touchdowns, 54, than all but three previous Irish squads over the last quarter century (1991, 1992, 2005). It nonetheless left far too many points on the table.

Among Notre Dame's 12 failed red zone trips last season were eight turnovers (technically nine including one scored inaccurately at Florida State to conclude the contest). Two other fumbles were lost inside the opponent's 30-yard line -- relative scoring position.

"As it pertains to red zone, the thing I've really had a chance to understand and learn, a lot of people offensively want to switch their paradigm when they get in the red zone and almost run a separate offense," said Sanford. "Like, This is our red zone offense; this is our base offense.' The problem with that is, there was 60 yards-plus eaten up because you ran schemes that are still good.

"Run what you run."

Formerly the offensive coordinator at Boise State, Sanford's 2014 Bronco's offense ranked 14th nationally last fall with 494 yards per game. More important, they ranked 17th in red zone efficiency, scoring 64 times in 71 forays inside their opponents' 20-yard line.
"You have to be able to run the football down in the red zone and the quarterback has to be able to understand, 'It's touchdowns and check downs.'

"That's really what it is. We're either going to throw touchdowns, or if not, we're going to take check downs and scramble. And we're not going to jeopardize the three points we have in our back pocket to force something."

Sanford's "Touchdown or Check Down" philosophy is likely to be a focal point of the quarterback competition in August camp as the new Irish offensive coordinator was burned by a trio of early red zone picks last season with the Broncos.

Of Boise State's seven failed red zone trips in 2014, three were the result of goal line interceptions thrown by quarterback Grant Hedrick -- none of which occurred after a Sept. 27 loss to Air Force.

Boise State won its final nine contests thereafter and did not commit a red zone turnover.

"Run what you run," indeed. Top Stories