On Saturday night Notre Dame will see how it all worked.
Because until kickoff against Stanford it’s impossible to know how Brian Kelly’s amended practice schedule will hold up under the pressure of an actual opponent.
For what it’s worth, Irish players appreciated Kelly’s recalibration of practices to get right what Notre Dame most needs to get right. For example, instead of waiting until Thursday to rep red zone and third down, Notre Dame swapped some of those periods into Tuesday and Wednesday workouts.
“I feel like he’s more on to us coaching-wise, being harder on us players because he wants us to do better and we want to do better ourselves,” said receiver Equanimeous St. Brown “I think it’s good. At Notre Dame we’re gonna win close games, we’re gonna have to.”
Third down has been a trip wire for Notre Dame’s offense with the Irish ranked No. 111 at just 33.3 percent, a stat that tanked the past two weeks after a combined 4-of-27 (14.8 percent) performance against Syracuse and N.C. State.
Notre Dame’s defense has lurched in the other direction with a combined 11-of-43 (25.6 percent) stop rate on third down against Duke, Syracuse and N.C. State. Despite bombing against Michigan State (9-of-18), the Notre Dame defense ranks No. 37 nationally in third down defense at 34.1 percent, among Kelly’s best in this category.
Still, Notre Dame hopes a slight up tick can right a season of four losses by one score each.
“Just switching it up so it's not so routine and guys have something to look forward to within a practice,” said linebacker James Onwualu.
Notre Dame broke red zone out of its Thursday time slot too, hoping to fine tune two systems that have been mediocre to date.
Offensively, the Irish rank No. 49 in red zone touchdown percentage at 68 percent. Despite that mark representing a Kelly era best, the Irish scored touchdowns on 1-of-5 red zone trips against Syracuse and N.C. State.
“These are the situations that we're in, and these are the situations that have led us to losing games,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “So instead of dedicating 30-to-45 minutes in a week, we're going to put it in every practice and make sure we're completely confident of what we're going to do when we're in those situations.”
Defensively, the Irish have allowed touchdowns on 62.5 percent of red zone trips, which ranks No. 68 nationally. That’s an improvement on Brian VanGorder’s two full seasons but still way off Bob Diaco’s run when the Irish allowed touchdowns on just 47.3 of red zone trips during his four years.
Stanford ranks No. 107 in red zone touchdown percentage this year, scoring four touchdowns in a national-worst eight red zone trips. In other words, there’s a good chance the Irish were going to improve their defensive red zone numbers this weekend regardless of how they practiced it.
But Notre Dame likes the change.
“It gives guys a new feel, a new vibe,” said linebacker Nyles Morgan. “Red zone is a time for the defense where you’ve really got to buck up and be on your stuff. Guys are flying around having fun.”
That wasn’t just on Thursday this week. And Kelly noticed.
“They’re ready,” Kelly said. “They just have to break through. They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen.”