A brutish offensive line? A dominant running back? A bevy of ‘backs? An enlightened offensive mind on the headset? A smart quarterback? A mobile quarterback? An accurate quarterback? Having the luxury of Jerome Bettis or Montee Ball or Tim Tebow in the backfield?
Ask a dozen football coaches, fans, and media members alike what the key is to a potent red zone offense and you’ll likely receive two handfuls of opinions.
But a singular reality continues to present:
Don’t turn it over -- specifically, the quarterback.
Through five seasons and 65 games of the Brian Kelly era to date, the veteran coach’s main trio of quarterbacks, Tommy Rees, Everett Golson, and Dayne Crist, combined to turn the ball over 28 times – not overall, but in the red zone alone.
The turnovers occurred in 24 different games and Notre Dame ultimately lost 13 of them.
The breakdown of red zone errors is as follows:
-- Rees 14 red zone turnovers in 32 games as the main/crucial quarterback (7 in 2011; 5 in 2013; 2 in 2010)
-- Golson 11 red zone turnovers in 25 such games (7 last season; 4 in 2012)
-- Crist 3 red zone turnovers in what amounted to 8 such games
The number “28” in 65 games is particularly alarming when you consider the trio’s pair of predecessors under former head coach Charlie Weis.
In 37 consecutive starts (season-opener *2004 through the Sugar Bowl 2006), program legend Brady Quinn turned the ball over in the red zone one time.
(*Play-by-play stats for the 2003 season and prior are incomplete among Notre Dame and NCAA box scores.)
Jimmy Clausen followed Quinn. In his 34 career starts, Clausen suffered just eight red zone turnovers (one in 2007, five in 2008; two vs. Navy in 2009).
Quinn and Clausen possessed similar passing acumen but different levels of mobility and strength (advantage Quinn for both of the latter).
Both understood the inherent value of the football. It’s a necessity first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has and will continue to impart to his quarterbacks.
"We have to be a better situational football team, especially our quarterback,” said Sanford midway through spring ball. “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.”
"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,’ Sanford continued.
"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."
VICTIMS OF TIMING
Quarterbacks aren’t the only Irish red zone offenders, just the most notable.
Jonas Gray (USF), Cierre Wood (Pittsburgh), and Chris Brown (Northwestern) all lost fumbles at the shadow of the goal line in recent seasons. With the exception of Wood’s miscue vs. Pittsburgh (a 3 OT win in 2012), the Irish lost those matchups – and would have lost to the Panthers if not for a subsequent 38-yard failed field goal.
Wood (Michigan 2011), Greg Bryant (Syracuse 2013), T.J. Jones (Pittsburgh 2013), George Atkinson (BC 2012), and Michael Floyd (Purdue and MSU 2010) all lost the football in the red zone or in relative scoring position (Wood was at Michigan’s 30-yard line) during the Kelly era as well.
Notre Dame lost three of those six outings and kept two others too close because of the mistakes.
But with the exception of his quarterbacks, Kelly’s skill position players could not be labeled as “fumblers” overall. Ill-timed errors in scoring position resonate nonetheless.
Prior to his arrival at Notre Dame, Kelly’s 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats finished 20th in red zone efficiency, scoring on 51 of 58 trips with 42 touchdowns.
Why the continuous in-close conundrum in South Bend after such success in the Queen City?
"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."
No. 49, No. 88, No. 70, No. 77, and No. 80 – Notre Dame’s red zone rankings over the last five seasons suggest both the method and execution indeed changes in close
Though the red zone efficiency metric isn’t the only indicator of success (field goals aid efficiency when the actual goal is to score touchdowns), it’s clear the nation’s top teams cash in when the goal line approaches.
2014 National Champion Ohio State scored touchdowns in 71 percent of its trips to the red zone. Playoff teams Oregon (65%) and Alabama (70%) followed suit. Florida State ranked No. 8 in red zone efficiency last season and No. 1 in its undefeated championship season of 2013.
(As offensive coordinator at Boise State last season, Sanford’s offense scored touchdowns in 70 percent of their red zone drives and finished 17th in overall efficiency, committing three turnovers, all in September.)
Notre Dame scored touchdowns on a solid 64 percent of its red zone forays last fall, a result similar to Oregon’s efforts as well as Big-10 contender Wisconsin (63.9%), and better than the performance of Pac-12 contender and 2014 foe Arizona State (62.5%). But the Badgers (#38 in red zone efficiency) and the Sun Devils (#12) didn’t turn it over in scoring position.
If Notre Dame is to contend for college football’s playoffs in 2015, Kelly’s red zone implementation – and his players’ execution – must reemerge as a weekly strength.