SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's quest to score more points has hit an early snag thanks to a familiar problem.
In seven red zone attempts, Notre Dame has three touchdowns and one field goal, putting the Irish offense near the bottom of college football through two weeks. Last year, Notre Dame scored on 80 percent of its red zone opportunities (No. 73 nationally) but had the 13th-worst red zone touchdown percentage (48.3 percent) among FBS teams.
It's a different year with a different quarterback, but so far, Notre Dame's red zone execution hasn't been good. Coach Brian Kelly isn't willing to put all the blame on quarterback Tommy Rees, though, specifically pointing to a mistake made by senior wideout T.J. Jones against Michigan.
With Notre Dame down 34-27, and seemingly having all the momentum on its side, Rees fired to Jones on a corner route on first-and-10 from the Michigan 25. The pass went incomplete as Jones was out of bounds — he estimated by about three inches — and instead of a prime touchdown opportunity, Notre Dame faced a second-and-10 and eventually settled for a field goal.
A pair of defensive breakdowns and two third-down pass interference calls all but sealed the loss on Michigan's next possession.
"It's the little things that decide ballgames," Kelly said. "We catch that, we're first and goal from the three."
Jones identified his problem on the play: He was split out too wide, the product of Michigan's defensive ends playing wide for most of the game. On that particular play, though, Jones said he should've paid more attention to the defensive end, who was in tighter and would've allowed his split to be closer by about a yard.
Doing so would've allowed him to make the catch and would've given the Irish a golden opportunity to tie the game at 34. Of course, for Notre Dame to win, it would've needed to get at least one defensive stop — a tall order for a unit repeatedly burned by Devin Gardner and the Michigan offense.
That was just one play, and it didn't technically come in the red zone — but if it's indicative of Notre Dame's red zone issues, it means the offense might be closer to fixing those issues than it was last year.
"I think we feel we are closer this year, but there's still tons of room for improvement," Jones said. "We're nowhere where we need to be, and that's kind of a driving force for us during practice each week."