Brian Kelly has been a head coach for a quarter of a century.
Getting an old dog to learn a few new tricks isn’t as difficult as it might seem when you’re competing for a spot in college football’s four-team playoff and trying to find an edge.
Struggling to consistently score in the red zone – the Irish managed just four touchdowns on 10 red-zone trips versus USC and Temple -- Kelly took a different approach in preparation for Pittsburgh, which came into last Saturday’s game against Notre Dame as one of the best red-zone touchdown percentage defenses in the country.
“We met as a team, all 11, and really focused,” Kelly explained. “We didn’t think it was one player (causing the problems). As a unit, we wanted them to be more alert and recognize the play calls in that area (of the field).
“(It was) a heightened awareness of where we were, when we were making these calls and more of a sense that we had to be efficient and spend more time in film study and practice.”
Actually, it wasn’t as much of a new trick as it was the application of an old one to a different area of the offense.
Every Thursday during the season, the offense works on its two-minute drill. On Friday, the offense sits down as an entire unit to study the film of Thursday’s work. Why not apply it to red-zone preparation?
“We’ve been really good in two-minute,” said Kelly, whose offense has scored seven times before the end of the first half or at the end of the game since DeShone Kizer took over at quarterback.
“It has been effective as a unit. Everybody understood it and has bought into it. So I said, ‘Let’s do that where we’ve been struggling a little bit. Let’s try to do that as a unit as it relates to our red zone.’”
Voila! Notre Dame entered the red zone four times against the Panthers and scored touchdowns each time. It was no small feat against Pittsburgh, which had allowed just 17 penetrations in the previous eight games combined. The four touchdowns scored by the Irish in the red zone were exactly half of what Pittsburgh had surrendered through two-thirds of its season.
“We showed (the players) all of our red zone plays,” said Kelly of last Friday’s film study. “We went through each one of them, talked about the nuances of the plays and talked about how important each piece was with it.”
Not surprisingly, buying into the new way of learning was Kizer, the eager, I-can-do-anything-I-put-my-mind-to red-shirt freshman quarterback.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to improve anything down there; it was just executing what was called,” said Kizer, who threw five touchdowns passes and scored a sixth against the Panthers. “We had a great game plan against Temple. We didn’t have to adjust how we went about it. I made some bad decisions and we had two turnovers in the red zone.
“When you get down there and put up points, it allows you to have a sense of confidence for the next time you’re down there.”
The Irish got the ball rolling in the red zone early in the second quarter when Kizer drilled a slanting Torii Hunter, Jr. for a 12-yard score.
Kizer hooked up with Will Fuller for a 14-yard score midway through the third quarter.
A shovel pass to Josh Adams resulted in a five-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Kizer completed the clean sweep in the red zone with a two-yard run with less than six minutes remaining.
The Hunter touchdown is what stuck in Kelly’s mind as the validation of Notre Dame’s new teaching method in the red zone.
“Torii Hunter’s catch was in a tight window,” Kelly explained. “We said, ‘Torii, here’s where the ball’s going to be. It’s going to be a tight window coming off the Sam’s helmet inside the safety. You’re going to have to make a great catch.’ And it actually turned out that way.
“I don’t know if that helped, but he made a pretty darn good catch in that situation. Maybe he (thought), ‘I’m going to have to make a great catch here. It’s not going to be one of these easy ones.’”
Kelly wished he had employed the same philosophy the week before in preparation for Temple. The Irish turned the ball over twice in the red zone against the Owls and maybe an added emphasis during the week would have prevented at least one of those miscues.
“We thought that was important after a deflected ball that we saw in the red zone with Will (Fuller) against Temple,” Kelly said. “If I did a better job saying, ‘Will, this is going to be a tight window and you have to be friendly on the route coming back to the quarterback,’ maybe the DB doesn’t get his hand in front of it. We just wanted to communicate it better.”
Fuller, who is making everything look easy in the passing game these days, isn’t quite as analytical about it.
“We’ve got to put the ball in the end zone when we get to the red zone,” Fuller smiled. “That’s one of the most important things. It will be important this week because Wake Forest has a great red-zone defense.
“Just do your job and do what you do.”
Senior receiver Chris Brown understood what the coaching staff was trying to gain through a collective study of the red-zone offense.
“Everything was clicking and guys were in the right place, doing what they were supposed to do,” Brown said. “(Opposing defenses) play tough, but especially in the red zone. As a defense, your back is against the wall when you’re in the red zone. You’re going to buckle down.
“For an offense, you have to execute and we were able to get on the same page and clear a lot of things up. The 4-for-4 is a testament to it.”
Kelly said although he had never taught red-zone offense as he did in preparation for Pittsburgh, he’s not about to mess with something that worked so well.
Wake Forest enters Saturday’s game with the No. 17 red-zone touchdown percentage defense, allowing just 11 touchdowns on 25 entries.
“It looks like that worked,” Kelly said. “We’ll do it again. It seemed like more guys were alert and knew the play and the ramifications of each particular play.”
And if the preparation doesn’t lead to success in the red zone this week?
“If we’re 0-for-4,” Kelly laughed, “we’re not going to do it again.”