The game between Notre Dame and Stanford was nearly impossible to pick.
So many factors to consider; so close when adding them all up.
But there was one area of concern for Notre Dame when it came to deciding which of these two 2015 behemoths would win in the regular-season finale – the red zone.
On both sides of the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal had the edge when the football moved inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Stanford ranked 28th in offensive red-zone touchdown percentage while Notre Dame’s defense was 102nd. The Cardinal finished 16th nationally in red-zone defense while Notre Dame’s offense was 91st.
Stanford was good at keeping opponents out of the end zone and getting into paydirt with running back Christian McCaffrey and power back Remound Wright. Notre Dame, on the other hand, struggled punching the football into the end zone, as evidenced by just two touchdowns in seven entries the week before against Boston College.
Sure enough, the Cardinal scored touchdowns on all five of their red-zone penetrations against the Irish while Notre Dame settled for field goals on its first three entries before finally scoring a touchdown with 30 seconds remaining, only to have their hearts pierced by the cruel cut of Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning 45-yard field goal.
Thirty-four days will separate Notre Dame’s loss to Stanford and its Fiesta Bowl tilt with Ohio State. When that day comes, the red-zone dilemma will still be on the table.
“We’ll go back and look at some of the things that clearly are areas of need,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of his team’s initial steps in preparation for the Buckeyes.
“We’ll probably start in the red zone, get to work on some things that we really need to define in some areas of improvement. Spend a little more time down there. Work on some specific things we want to get better at.”
The numbers – as they were in the Stanford matchup – don’t calibrate very well for the Irish. Notre Dame’s offense ranks 91st in red-zone touchdown percentage, tallying 28 touchdowns on 50 entries (56.0 percent) while Ohio State’s defense is No. 54 at 57.1 percent (16-of-28).
The greater disparity is on the other side of the football where the Buckeyes’ offense is 38th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage at 66.0 percent (33-of-50) while Notre Dame’s defense has allowed an alarming 67.6 percent of the red-zone penetrations (23-of-34, 102nd) to result in touchdowns
Kelly’s comments about Notre Dame’s offensive red-zone inefficiency were in response to a question about quarterback DeShone Kizer and the things the staff would be working on in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl.
Certainly, not all of the blame falls on Kizer’s shoulders. In fact, Kizer has to be considered one of Notre Dame’s most valuable assets in the red zone, or anywhere else on the field for that matter. But when you score just three touchdowns on your final 11 red-zone penetrations of the regular season, you start with the triggerman.
“It’s on me and my decision-making and keeping the ball out of harm’s way and making sure each drive (counts),” Kizer said. “You have to understand that a field goal might look like a disappointment, but points are points. Hopefully, we’ll take some of those three-point drives and make them six- and seven-point drives.”
Against Ohio State, field goals won’t be enough. The Buckeyes haven’t allowed more than 14 points in a game since Oct. 10 when they defeated Maryland, 49-28. To be sure, Penn State, Rutgers, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan State (without Connor Cook) and Michigan are nowhere close to Notre Dame’s scoring prowess and offensive proficiency.
But if it comes down to the red zone, odds are the Irish will bog down. Ohio State has allowed just 28 red-zone entries in 12 games, including no more than three in any of the last seven games. A mere seven red-zone touchdowns were scored against the Buckeyes in the last six games of the regular season.
It’s at the forefront of the challenge to Kizer on Jan. 1.
“Every time you step out onto the field, it’s an opportunity,” Kizer said. “This is one in which the stage is going to be set. Very large. We’re going to be playing against a team that is respected all the way across the board.
“Great coaching staff. Great athletes. A really good defense, which we as a team and me as a player will have an opportunity to prove who we really are.”
If the Irish are going to defeat the Buckeyes for their first “major bowl victory” in 22 years, they’ll need to do one of two things: strike from distance or show marked improvement in the red zone. The former seems more likely than the latter with Ohio State tied for 97th with Notre Dame in 50-yard plays allowed (nine).
“This team is different,” Kizer said. “We proved ourselves all year that we’re a hard-nosed, hard-hat, lunch-pail type team, and when it comes to big games, we typically show up.
“There’s still a bad taste in our mouths. We understood that our mission was to get to the national championship and our last game was a loss. This is definitely an opportunity to wash that taste from Stanford out and prepare to win a game.”
Win the red zone, win the game.