Notre Dame’s struggles in the red zone start at quarterback. And that’s exactly where any improvement – both short term and long – begin. Not only does DeShone Kizer know it, but Notre Dame’s history of developing quarterbacks under Brian Kelly almost guarantees it.
That means one of college football’s more efficient offenses outside the 20-yard line should develop into something more lethal next season. The Irish averaged 7.13 yards per play this fall, good for fifth nationally and trailing only North Carolina, Baylor and Oregon among Power 5 programs.
Where the Irish struggled was in the red zone, turning just 56 percent of trips into touchdowns. That ranked 91st nationally. More relevant, it burned Notre Dame at Stanford – five red zone trips netted just one touchdown – and almost did the same at Temple – five red zone trips turned into just two touchdowns.
“We’re successful outside of it,” Kizer said. “Why can’t we be successful inside of it?”
For now, it’s the quarterback.
Despite an elite offensive line and an All-American wide receiver in Will Fuller, the red zone struggles are standard for young quarterbacks under Kelly.
Kizer went 17-of-40 for 150 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions in the red zone this year, meaning he averaged a pick every eight pass attempts. His 42.5 completion percentage in the red zone was a major drop from outside it, where he completed 66.7 percent of his passes (172-of-258) for 2,450 yards, 10 scores and four picks.
“I know as a quarterback I have to keep the ball out of harm’s way when we’re down there,” Kizer said. “Obviously a kick is the ultimate ending to the drive. Whether it be an extra point or a field goal, we want to make sure that we have the ball at the end of the drive.
“Other than that, we’ve talked about it and we’ve game planned well for this next game on how to simplify the red zone and try to figure out where the windows really are and to really take the identity that we have until the red zone and put it into the red zone.”
While there’s no guarantee Kizer will get a red zone bounce against Ohio State – the Buckeyes have allowed 28 red zone penetrations all year (No. 4 nationally) and allowed touchdowns on 57.1 percent of them (No. 53) – it’s almost a sure thing he’ll improve next year.
Consider the jumps Everett Golson and Tommy Rees made between their first full years starting and their second. For each that means looking at their sophomore years compared to their senior seasons.
As a sophomore during Notre Dame’s run to the BCS National Championship Game, Golson went 15-of-46 in the red zone (32.6 percent) with six touchdowns and three interceptions. While he had the same touchdown-to-interception ratio outside the red zone, he nearly doubled his completion percentage there.
Compare that to Golson’s senior year when he completed 58.9 percent of his passes inside the red zone and 60.1 percent outside it. The touchdown-to-interception improvement was equally drastic. Golson hit for 18 touchdowns against three picks in the red zone versus 11-to-11 outside it.
Rees didn’t get much improvement in his red zone completion percentage between his sophomore and senior years, but he did see his touchdown-to-interception ratio evolve. He went from 8-to-2 as a sophomore (with Michael Floyd) to 14-to-2 (without Floyd).
If Kizer can make a similar jump next year Notre Dame might be able to score its way into the College Football Playoff mix. It all comes back to a sophomore quarterback growing up into a junior.
“I’ve tried to do things that are uncharacteristic of our offense (in the red zone),” Kizer said. “I try to fit balls in spots where I really don’t have to. I now understand that when we’re down there I have to get the ball in the playmakers’ hands and to make sure I take all the strengths of our talented playmakers and make sure they come out when we’re down there.”