Scoring touchdowns in the red zone has been a challenge for Brian Kelly and his staff since their arrival in 2010.
The Irish have been among the nation’s top 35 percent in red-zone touchdown percentage just once.
That came in 2011 with Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert catching a combined 163 passes/14 touchdowns, and the one-two running punch of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray (1,893 yards rushing/21 scores).
As often as not during the Kelly regime, Notre Dame has been among the bottom one-third of the country.
• 2010: 87th (56.2 percent; 26-46)
• 2011: 28th (66.6 percent; 32-48)
• 2012: 112th (48.3 percent; 29-60)
• 2013: 100th (53.3 percent; 24-45)
• 2014: 45th (64.5 percent; 40-62)
• 2015: 79th (58.4 percent; 31-53)
Add up those six seasons and the Irish have converted red-zone appearances into touchdowns just 57.9 percent of the time. That percentage would have ranked 84th in the country in 2015.
If the Texas and Nevada games are any indication, those numbers should be continually on the rise in 2016 as second-year starting quarterback DeShone Kizer adds another nuance to his burgeoning profile.
The Irish scored three touchdowns in five red-zone penetrations against the Longhorns, and then were a sparkling 5-of-6 against the Wolf Pack. Texas finished 103rd defensively in red-zone touchdown percentage a year ago, but Nevada was 32nd.
That’s 8-of-11 in two games (72.7 percent).
“You have to understand in the red zone that if you’re first option is not there, you have to go to your second and your third,” Kizer said. “If it isn’t open, don’t force it.
“That was my biggest fault last year. I wanted to take the first, second or third read and never considered extending the play.”
Progressions – considering the first passing option, the second, the third, etc. – is a buzzword familiar to most football aficionados. But once the passing options have been considered and nothing has materialized, what is a quarterback to do?
When you have the wherewithal of Kizer, as well as the intelligence and open-mindedness to improve areas of weakness, the next step is to extend the play.
Kizer, who has proven that he’s as effective of a runner if not as flamboyant as his on-the-roster competitor, Malik Zaire, is learning how to use his feet to take the Irish to the next phase of red-zone play.
“We spent so much time during the off-season defining who we are in the red zone,” Kizer said. “We get into a lot of funky formations and try to run the ball as much as we can. If we get to third down, we get right to the plays that we’ve run a thousand times.
“Things get moving when the defense wants to play zone coverage down there. They have to make a decision to stop me or to stop the receivers, and when they step up, I’m going to drop it off.”
Notre Dame’s inability to score touchdowns in the red zone against Stanford in the 2015 regular-season finale cost the Irish a shot at a playoff berth.
Four times the Irish penetrated the Cardinal 20-yard line, including three times within the first 34 minutes. Notre Dame had to settle for Justin Yoon field goals three of those times, which ultimately cost them the game.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained the progress that Kizer has made in this area. He did it against Nevada despite the loss of the lone veteran on the receiving corps -- Torii Hunter, Jr. – who had to sit out the game with a concussion.
Short touchdown passes to sophomore C.J. Sanders and freshman Kevin Stepherson within a span of 2:12 displayed notable progress.
“A lot of times when (Kizer was) getting double-zoned down there in bracket coverage last year, he rushed into some throws,” Kelly explained. “When you’re a lot more patient and can recognize what you’re getting, you’re not rushed into making that first throw.
“A lot of it just comes with patience and understanding what you’re getting and knowing where the openings are going to be in some of those bracket coverages that he’s getting down there.”
The Irish caught a bad break – more accurately, a bad call – when what clearly was a targeting penalty late in the third quarter against Texas was ruled an incomplete pass. Had Hunter been rewarded for his pain, the Irish likely would have scored a touchdown and added to the early-season percentage.
Yet clearly the Irish are on the right track, and now it’s on to the next challenge of Michigan State, which ranked 85th last season in red-zone touchdown percentage defense (63.4 percent, 26-41).
“As long our guys continue to make the adjustments on the ball and try to make catches in tight windows, and I put the ball where it’s supposed to be, we’ll be able to score every time there,” Kizer said.
“Every time” may be a slight exaggeration. “Most of the time” is realistic.
“Maturity and just some more patience,” said Kelly of Kizer’s progress, “where the game is not really fast down there for him. It’s starting to slow down.”