Red Zone Woes Catch Up to Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame’s regular season came to an unfitting but inevitable ending on Saturday night in Palo Alto, California. It was the same old story for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who have struggled to put the ball in the end zone from close range all year. The Irish have had troubles in the red zone on both sides of the ball all season long, and it was only a matter of time before it came back to bite them.

Red Zone Woes Catch Up to Notre Dame Fighting Irish

On offense, Notre Dame turned the ball over much too often in the short field and had drives stall inside the 20 throughout the season. The Irish ranked 89th in the country in red zone percentage, scoring on just 80 percent of their trips inside the twenty-yard line. On defense, Notre Dame failed to stop long drives and force field goals, doing so just three times all season. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s squad allowed a whopping 25 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more.

These storylines that define Notre Dame’s overachieving yet disappointing season do the same for their heartbreaking loss to Stanford this past Saturday. Notre Dame had a slim chance if any to make the playoff after near a disaster against Boston College, and saw any hope of making the playoff disappear in the final 30 seconds of what will no doubt be considered one of the best college football games of 2015. The Irish entered the game at number six, still needing help from other teams around the country to get into the top four, even with a win. After the loss, Notre Dame fell to eighth, all but officially eliminating them from CFP contention.

The Irish certainly will not be in the playoff with two losses, but that’s no reason for Notre Dame’s players and fans to hang their heads. The 10-2 record marks the second-best finish of head coach Brian Kelly’s six-year tenure at Notre Dame, and his second double-digit win season. The future looks promising in South Bend considering the number of injuries the Irish overcame to come just four points from possibly finishing number one. Depth had been a concern of coach Kelly’s during the past few seasons, but his efforts on the recruiting trail seemed to have changed that. Kelly has been able to establish a culture in the Notre Dame football program around his slogan “next man in,” and his players seem to believe in the mission. Without the efforts of redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer, wide receiver turned running back C.J. Prosise, true freshman running back Josh Adams, and numerous other backups, the Irish never would have been in the playoff conversation to begin with.

Notre Dame figures to make a New Year’s Six bowl, most likely the Peach or Fiesta Bowl in which they would meet another top-ranked team. No matter the opponent, the game will surely be exciting – just not as thrilling as a rematch with Clemson in the playoff semifinal would have been. There is a list of teams being talked about as possible opponents for Notre Dame, such as of the loser of the Big Ten championship game (Michigan State or Iowa), Ohio State, or Houston. Each team presents a different challenge for Notre Dame, but give the Irish a few weeks to heal, and they’ll be good enough to beat anyone in the country – just a tad bit too late to secure a playoff berth.

In the end, it was a disappointing season for Notre Dame considering how much they overcame only to fall just short. Still, though, it was as eventful a season for Notre Dame as they come, and a 10-2 record is better than most expected when starting quarterback Malik Zaire went down for the year along with starting running back Tarean Folston the week before. Rather than focus on what could have been Notre Dame fans should instead appreciate what this team was able to accomplish, and be excited for what the future holds. The Irish lose will lose a lot of talent to graduation this offseason, but injuries allowed a number of players who figure to play a large role for the team next season to get some game experience, and a number of current juniors are poised to step into leadership roles.

Notre Dame beat the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to the teams most predicted they might lose to. As the old saying goes, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. The Irish had two matchups against top ten teams in 2015 and lost them both by two points. Part of what makes college football so great is the importance of every single game and the need to be near perfect, and Notre Dame fell just four points short of meeting that criteria. After Saturday night, there’s only one word that can describe Notre Dame’s 2015 season – almost. Kelly and his team will have one last chance to prove themselves this season and an opportunity set the tone for next season. Can they take advantage of it?

Main Photo: