Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

975059.png

Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In an effort to combat one of the worst red zone touchdown rates in the nation, Notre Dame's offense has tried some new looks in practice leading up to the BCS Championship. The actual specifics aren't important, since everything the media saw this week in South Florida was calculated. More importantly, there's a greater sense of urgency permeating Notre Dame's offense when it gets inside the red zone.

For a team that's only found the end zone 46 percent of the time when its offense gets inside its opponents' 20-yard line, something had to change.

"I think once we got to the red zone, for a lot of people, it was 'let's get in the end zone' but it wasn't -- I don't want to say there wasn't a want to, but it wasn't do-or-die for us," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "And that's what we've established.

"It's taken that month to work on what you do in the red zone to flip your mindset when you're in the red zone to know it's do-or-die," he added.

Notre Dame beat USC despite seeing drives stall on far too many occasions. If Kyle Brindza attempts six field goals against Alabama, Notre Dame's probably in trouble.

"Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to," running back Theo Riddick said following Notre Dame's win over USC. "We have to get better at that, being in the red zone."

The other part of this equation deals with Alabama's red zone defense, which is among the best in college football. Opponents have converted red zone opportunities into points about three in every five tries against Alabama this year, although the Tide have allowed 14 touchdowns -- six more than Notre Dame -- on those chances.

But with only 27 opponent red zone attempts (tied for the lowest among FBS teams) at which to look, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin doesn't have a whole lot of tape to work with.

"The few clips when teams get inside their 10 so you can really game plan and organize a good plan, the score is typically 48 to nothing, and there's none of the starters on the field for Alabama," Martin said. "It's hard to game plan against what they do late in the game when they're up by 50 points. That's the other task for them is you're trying to see how you can attack them and what they're going to do against you or certain formations, and you know they've got their backups in and they're just kind of finishing out the game."

A way to fight that unknown is to toss in an unknown as well, as in a play or two Alabama hasn't seen on film. But Kirby Smart's defense -- which prides itself on a "war zone" mentality inside the 20 -- expects some new wrinkles to Notre Dame's red zone offense.

"In a game like this, you got what, five weeks to prepare, you know there's going to be some trick plays that'll be thrown into it," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "You gotta focus in, read your keys and just know when they like to throw in a trick play here or there. We got a great coaching staff that have us prepared when they do run a trick play, just reading our keys and it's up to us to make the plays."

If one of those plays is a wildcat formation with Theo Riddick taking a direct snap or even a fake field goal -- both plays witnessed in practice this week -- the key for Notre Dame is to catch Alabama off guard. The Irish rarely did that during the regular season.

In a championship game, teams will pull out all the stops. Refrigerator Perry scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XX -- although don't expect Notre Dame to use the same line of thinking with its own large defensive tackle.

"I don't want give it away, but they have put the ball in my hands a couple times in practice," Louis Nix joked, hushing his tone and leaning in with a smile. "It's a special option with me and (defensive end Stephon) Tuitt. It's going well. I'll show a pass to him, if I want. I'm a selfish guy so I might just fake it and just keep it. We scored on it a couple times.

"Alabama, be on the lookout for it."

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

parislee-1202.jpg
USA TODAY

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

CSN will have two quality college basketball matchups on Saturday as two Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge games will be featured live.

Bradley (4-3) has Nevada (6-2) in town for a 7 p.m. game Saturday on CSN while Illinois State (3-2) will host New Mexico (5-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday on CSN+.

The Braves have alternated wins and losses all season as they hope to build momentum off of a road win over Eastern Illinois.

Freshman guard Darrell Brown paces Bradley at 15.3 points per game on 48 percent three-point shooting while junior guard JoJo McGlaston is putting up 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest.

Nevada enters this one winning four of their last five games as senior guard Marcus Marshall is averaging 20.0 points and 3.9 assists per game. Sophomore forward Cameron Oliver has been generating some pro buzz as he's averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

In the second contest, Illinois State is hoping for a key non-conference win against a quality opponent. Senior forward Deontae Hawkins is doing some solid damage as he's averaging 16.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while junior forward MiKyle McIntosh is at 14.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.

Proviso East product Paris Lee is also having a good year at guard for Illinois State.

New Mexico is led by a former area product as Homewood-Flossmoor graduate Tim Williams is averaging 19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Lobos. Junior guard Elijah Brown, the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, is also playing well for New Mexico as he's putting up 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

northern_iowa_preview.jpg
USA TODAY

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

Northern Iowa looks to snap a two-game losing streak as they host George Mason tonight. You can catch this game live on CSN+ at 7 p.m.

The Panthers (3-2) have lost both games to Xavier as Northern Iowa matched up with the top-25 team for the title in the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando before losing to them on the road less than a week later.

Northern Iowa does own some solid wins over Oklahoma and Arizona State as they're led by senior Jeremy Morgan, who is averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game -- which all lead the team. 

Junior forward Klint Carlson has also been strong for the Panthers as he's put up 12.2 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

George Mason (3-2) has won three consecutive games -- with two of those wins coming by four points or less. The Patriots haven't played anyone as good as Northern Iowa yet as they beat Kent State, Bradley and James Madison.