Getting to the red zone is half the battle. Only about 25 teams in the country have made more trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line than Notre Dame with its 34.
But their ability to score points - more accurately, score touchdowns - could be a very critical factor for the Irish this weekend when they visit Owen Field in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium Saturday night to take on the 8th-ranked Sooners.
“We have to be better on third down throwing the football and we have to be better in the red zone,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up.”
That efficiency has been on the decline in recent weeks, which explains why the Irish are 83rd nationally in red-zone offense. Notre Dame made nine red-zone appearances the last two weeks against Stanford and Brigham Young with just three touchdowns and 30 points to show for it.
That likely won’t be enough against Oklahoma, which ranks tied for first nationally in red-zone scoring with Clemson, Alabama and Louisville. The Irish counter defensively with the No. 2 red-zone defense - 10 scores on 19 drives, just four passing TDs and no rushing TDs - to form one of the classic confrontations within the war between a pair of top 10 teams.
“We had a big segment (Wednesday) on red-zone offense,” said Irish captain/left tackle Zack Martin. “We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board. Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.
“That’s going to have to be something we step up and fix. It’s better for us to score than to not get any points. But we’re working to get the ball in the end zone.”
The most disappointing red-zone appearance against BYU came in the third quarter after Theo Riddick’s 55-yard run gave the Irish a 1st-and-goal at the Cougar eight. Three plays and two net yards later, the Irish were forced to settle for a field goal and a 14-10 deficit. Fortunately for the Irish, they capitalized on the next red-zone chance to score the game-winning points on George Atkinson’s short touchdown run.
Notre Dame has put points on the board 76.4 percent of the time in the red zone, but has scored touchdowns a mere 47.0 percent of the time. Oklahoma has nine more red-zone touchdowns than Notre Dame, but one less trip inside the 20.
“You’ve got to fault us,” said Riddick, who came up well short on third down after Cierre Wood carried on first and second down. “We were too aggressive on the run and we didn’t allow the offensive line to make the blocks we needed to spring us.
“The plays we ran down there, we were supposed to be between the tackles and we were outside the tackles. It was our fault and we made an emphasis this week on the details.”
For Riddick in the red zone, it’s all about the little things.
“We’ve got to be detailed oriented,” Riddick said. “We forget about some details on specific routes and certain runs, like being patient and allowing our offensive line to make its blocks. We have to become more poised and execute the play.”
If the Irish don’t, the Sooners’ offense likely will, or at least they have in their six games this season. Oklahoma has scored points in 32-out-of-33 trips to the red zone (.969), including touchdowns 75.7 percent of the time (25-of-33).
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has put points on the board 76.4 percent of the time (16 touchdowns, 10 field goals), but has scored touchdowns a mere 47.0 percent of the time. Oklahoma has nine more red-zone touchdowns than Notre Dame, but one less trip inside the 20.
The Irish have to pass it better down there too. The quick slant to TJ Jones for the game-winning score against Stanford is one option. With Tyler Eifert, a fade route is always in the game plan. A bit more diversity would help through the air and likely open some things up on the ground, where the Irish ultimately feel the need to win the battle within the war.
“Early on, Coach Kelly and Coach Martin told us that if we could run the football, it would be in our hands,” said Martin of the offense’s evolution into a run-first offense. “It’s really up to us how much we run the football.
“We’ve done our job in most of the games and have been able to run the football, and that mentally helps our offense. It opens up the pass game and takes pressure off the quarterback. It slows down the defensive pass rush.”
Normally, Kelly would like to run his offense at a break-neck pace with the passing game a more integral part of the package. But with the continued uncertainty at quarterback and the dominance of the defense, he’s content for now to rely heavily on the rushing attack.
“We’re taking time off the clock to close out football games,” Kelly said. “If you go back and look at the wins, there’s a lot of yardage there and there’s a lot of time of possession where we’re not throwing the football. But having said that, we have to be better on third down throwing the football and we have to be better in the red zone.”
It may be the most important aspect in the clash of top 10 teams this weekend in Norman.