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November 5, 2012

Red-zone issues still haunt ND

When Notre Dame traveled to Oklahoma a couple of weekends ago, Brian Kelly knew the importance of the Irish at least matching the Sooners’ No. 1-ranked red-zone offense.

The Irish held Oklahoma to a pair of field goals in their only two red-zone appearances through the first three quarters of the game and responded with a one-yard touchdown run to match Blake Bell’s one-yard touchdown run on the previous series.

Mission accomplished.

But Notre Dame reverted back to an old habit against Pittsburgh, and it nearly cost the Irish the game despite holding a 214-yard total offense advantage and a significant edge on third down.

A 14-play first-quarter drive stalled at the Panther 20 and the Irish settled for a field goal. A 1st-and-goal at the Pittsburgh two became an 18-play field-goal drive in the second quarter.

After converting a first down at the Panther 11 into a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Everett Golson threw an interception in the end zone on 2nd-and-goal from the seven with just 3:59 remaining. Fortunately for the Irish and Golson, they got another chance and converted a 1st-and-goal at the five into a touchdown pass to Theo Riddick. Golson’s two-point conversion run sent the game into overtime.

But Cierre Wood’s fumble into the end zone in the second overtime nearly proved disastrous. The Panthers missed a 33-yard field goal, giving the Irish offense one more chance to convert in the red zone, which Golson did on a one-yard plunge for the victory.

“The quarterback has to do a better job down there,” lamented Brian Kelly Sunday while reflecting on Notre Dame’s 29-26 triple-overtime victory over Pittsburgh.

“We fumbled the football, threw an interception, and missed a couple of real easy opportunities to score. A 15-play drive, an 18-play drive, and we only come out of it with six points. We just can’t leave those points out there.”

After scoring touchdowns on five of seven red-zone appearances in the season-opener against Navy, the Irish have managed just 16 touchdowns in their last 39 red-zone appearances. That’s a 41.0 percent touchdown rate on red-zone appearances in the last eight games, and just a 45.6 touchdown percentage for the season.

In the last eight games, the Irish have not exceeded a 50 percent touchdown rate in the red zone other than the Miami game when Notre Dame scored four touchdowns on seven red-zone appearances.

Including field goals, Notre Dame is tied for 89th nationally in red-zone scoring at .760.

More than 60 teams have scored more touchdowns after reaching the red zone than Notre Dame, including Ball State (29), Rice (23), Western Kentucky (25), Louisiana-Monroe (29), Syracuse (24) and New Mexico (24).

“That’s a process of continuing to develop at the quarterback position, taking care of the football, and execution down on the goal line,” Kelly summarized.

His solution? A strong emphasis on the practice field again this week, much like Oklahoma week. There’s no substitute for repetition. Adding more plays is not the answer for Kelly.

“You have to be even more simple in terms of execution and repeating the same plays and making sure we make progress during the week,” Kelly said. “We thought we did, the game starts and we don’t get the kind of production down there.

“We (understand) how important it is to put points on the board when we get down there.”

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