TOM COYNE, Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame is still struggling to get from the red zone to the end zone.
Coach Brian Kelly thought the No. 21 Fighting Irish (1-1) would improve, saying confidently during the preseason that Tommy Rees would do a better job of making decisions that would make them more efficient in the red zone. Last season, they were a disappointing 70th in the nation, converting on 80 percent of their scoring chances.
Two games into this season, though, the Irish are tied for 111th in red zone offense, converting on just four of seven chances — and only three were touchdowns. Kelly said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that the problem is players executing plays.
“It comes down to performance. It comes down to practice and preparation. We have to continue to work on those things,” he said.
Kelly was clearly displeased with Rees’ decision to try to force a throw to running back Amir Carlisle, who was covered, late in the Michigan game on first-and-goal from the 6-yard line. The ball glanced off Carlisle’s hands, ricocheted off of Michigan cornerback Raymon Taylor’s leg and was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Blake Countess.
Earlier in the quarter, Notre Dame receiver DaVaris Daniels was hit by Taylor the moment a quick pass landed in his hands, tackled for a 2-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Wolverine 15. Kelly decided to go for it on fourth-and-4, but the pass by Rees was out of reach for the diving TJ Jones in the end zone.
All three failed attempts came on passes, as the Irish called 12 passing plays in the 13 plays they had in the red zone. Overall, the Irish passed on 74 percent of their offensive plays against the Wolverines. Kelly said it was because Michigan was forcing the Irish to throw by placing eight men or more near the line of scrimmage.
“I want balance just like everybody else in America wants balance. But look, we have to throw the ball effectively when we are called upon to throw the ball, and we have to run the ball effectively when we are called upon to run effectively,” he said.
Kelly said he’s not worried that other teams will try to follow Michigan’s model and try to force the Irish to depend on the pass.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re that far away from being very efficient at it. I would welcome it every single week. I think we’re close, if not right there,” he said. “I mean, we’re a step away here; we’re an alignment away here or there. We’re a check away. I’m very confident that if you want to play us that way, we’re going to beat you.”
Kelly got a bit testy during the news conference as he kept getting asked about what went wrong at Michigan, instead of about the upcoming game against Purdue, saying at one point: “I would like to move on here, sooner or later.”
A week after getting criticized for calling Notre Dame’s game against Michigan a “big regional game,” and then reversing himself several days later and describing it as “a great and historic rivalry,” Kelly tread carefully when asked if he regards Purdue, which Notre Dame has played more than twice as often as the Wolverines, as a rivalry kind of game.
Kelly answered by saying the Irish will be focused more on themselves this week.
“I don’t want to minimize the fact that we’re playing Purdue, because I think that we clearly understand who they are as a Big Ten opponent, somebody within our state, and the natural rivalry because we’ve played so much,” he said. “But we’re coming off of a stinging loss and our guys are really focused on themselves.”
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