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Notre Dame Football

Red Zone Redemption: Notre Dame seeks scoring efficiency

October 22, 2020

On a game-sealing, clock-disintegrating, 14-play drive responsible for melting the final eight minuteslast week in a 12-7 win against Louisville, Notre Dame's offense runs the ball nine times.

The Irish gain an initial 49 yards on those snaps, primarily the hard-charging running of sophomore tailback Kyren Williams. There are two passes, a pair of third-down completions, from Ian Book to Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, respectively.

Notre Dame cracks into the red zone, but caring little about aesthetics, spends its final three plays kneeling down for a total of 10 yards lost.

It's illustrative of Notre Dame's team strength as a run-first offense right now and its dominance along the offensive line; it's also one more area with which to pick nits in the Irish offense.

The stats reflect it is another red-zone scoring opportunity not ending in a score – specifically a touchdown.

The Irish are scoring less frequently on their red zone trips in this bizarre 2020 campaign, and, of greater need for improvement, touchdowns are the culmination of just 12 of the Irish's 21 treks inside opponents' 20-yard lines after scoring 12 touchdowns in 14 trips through their first four games of 2019.

“I think it's a development,” said Irish offensive lineman Aaron Banks. “Being good in the red zone is a strength that not a lot of teams have. I think we're doing a good job of working at that.

“I think it's just executing a little bit more, straining a little bit harder on a player here and there and we'll bust some things open and get in the end zone more.”

Indeed, third-ranked Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) is unquestionably absent a couple scores because of decisions like last Saturday in ending the game after stalking down to the Cardinals' 9-yard line and simply expunging the clock.

It's an area being targeted for improvement, both Saturday at Pittsburgh (3:30, ABC) and glancing ahead at a schedule with Clemson, North Carolina and a potential berth in the ACC Championship all still looming.

“There's a lot of pieces to that,” ND coach Brian Kelly said. “It's a high level of execution that has to occur. I've looked at all of the aspects of it over the past 24 hours. We have a plan moving forward, but I don't think you need to spend much time thinking about anything else other than we've got to be better in that area moving forward. I think it's 16 of 21 in the red zone.

“On three instances, that was head-coach controlled, in other words, twice I called for the ball to be run out, to run the ball to end the game, and one I called a fake field goal. Sixteen of 19 in terms of scoring in that area, that's still not good enough. This isn't to explain away anything.”

Extremely accurate a year ago in red zone throws, Book is still developing rapport with an overhauled Irish wide receivers corps battling nagging injuries, no spring football and a season still aligning with its stoppage earlier this month. All three of Book's touchdown passes through the first four games are from within red-zone forays; he's got 15 incompletions on 28 pass attempts, with two drops, three sacks and one interception, per Pro Football Focus data.

Those figures also show Notre Dame isn't consistently challenging teams outside the numbers once it gets inside the 20, with Book completing just two throws into the boundaries.

The Irish are running the ball extremely well in that area, despite shrinking real estate. Williams and freshman Chris Tyree have 85 yards on 27 carries; Book makes it 123 rushing yards on 40 carries for the trio, which has eight rushing touchdowns.

“We need to be better,” Kelly said. “We've examined every area and there's a lot of pieces to that. You can imagine my attention is at 100% on that has to be better. We'll work diligently to make sure it is."

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