If it were happening for the first or second time, you could say that the current personnel simply isn’t executing and that additional practice should clear it up.
When it spans six seasons with a clear pattern of failure over success, it likely runs a little deeper.
“It’s certainly a number that we’re aware of,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, referencing Notre Dame’s 11 turnovers in the red zone over the last 21 games. “We have to clear up the turnovers and convert field position into touchdowns.”
Since Kelly took over as head coach in 2010, Notre Dame has ranked – including this season – 85th or worse in red-zone touchdown percentage four out of six years.
In 2012, the defense carried the Irish to the national-title game while the offense ranked 112th in red-zone touchdown percentage. A year later, Notre Dame finished 100th.
Despite Everett Golson’s penchant for turning it over in the red zone, Notre Dame was 45th last year in red-zone touchdown percentage. It came against some of the nation’s top red-zone defenses: No. 4 Louisville, No. 10 Syracuse, No. 18 LSU, No. 22 Michigan, No. 29 USC, No. 30 Florida State, No. 39 Arizona State, No. 44 Stanford, No. 45 Navy and No. 48 Northwestern.
Through eight games this season, the Irish have faced No. 6 Temple (9-25, 36.0 percent), No. 23 Virginia (15-of-32, 46.8 percent), and No. 43 Clemson (10-of-19, 52.6 percent).
Notre Dame will be on red alert in the red zone over the final four games when it matches wits and bodies against No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-of-17, 47.0 percent), No. 17 Wake Forest (11-of-25, 44.0 percent), No. 2 Boston College (5-of-18, 27.8 percent), and No. 39 Stanford (13-of-25, 52.0 percent).
“It’s really been an issue for us a couple times on the road,” Kelly said. “Virginia (1-of-3), obviously, and against Temple (2-of-5). Both those games we had opportunities to really lay some points on our opposition and didn’t do it.
“We’ve done some more self-scouting and study in terms of play-calling and what we’re doing down there. But at the end of the day, it’s execution from everybody, a heightened awareness of where we are, and then a little more practice time.”
The Irish have scored two touchdowns on five red-zone appearances in each of the last two games, including the 41-31 victory over USC when the Irish had a chance to go up three scores in the second quarter, only to allow the Trojans to tie the game by halftime.
Without veteran running back Tarean Folston – who was lost for the season with a knee injury in the season-opener against Texas – Notre Dame’s top running back option is C.J. Prosise, a youngster at the position who is more of a patient, wait-for-the-hole-to-open type runner lacking the muscle memory of lowering his pads and pounding it between the tackles.
For the most part, the Irish have turned to 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback DeShone Kizer to handle a majority of the 3rd-and-short carries.
“They seem to like that in Charlotte; they think it’s okay there,” laughed Kelly, referencing 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback Cam Newton as the Carolina Panthers’ short-yardage option.
“In certain situations, we’re okay with it. But we have to be more than one-dimensional.”
Another option is 6-foot-1 ½, 212-pound freshman Josh Adams, although he’s carried the football just 34 times, including two or less carries three of the last four games.
“A lot of these questions, we throw them around just like you do on Sunday when we get together as a staff,” Kelly said. “Should we get Josh – a physical kid in the red zone -- a few more carries? Is it the tight end and getting him the ball? Those are all possibilities.
“But as we broke it down, we’re having issues that are not just one person. It’s the right tackle, the guard, the quarterback, the receiver…We have to play better as a unit first and then maybe feature some more guys that can help us be better down there.”
Kelly said defenses scheme offenses into mistakes in the red zone. Sometimes, it comes down to players simply making plays.
“When you get down there, it’s so game plan-centric,” Kelly said. “Teams are really dictating down there what you do. Are they laying off in coverage? Are there eight or nine guys on the line of scrimmage? I mean, you’re in a short field, right?
“You can’t just rely on your offensive line because they may not be able to block everybody. A back may have to run through a tackle or two. The quarterback may have to be on time and precise to hit the corner route.”
The urgency to improve in the red zone remains at the forefront Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh.