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Notre Dame can’t stall in red zone vs. high-octane Oklahoma

Theo Riddick Joe Sampson

Theo Riddick, Joe Sampson

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Updated: November 28, 2012 6:13AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Running back Theo Riddick planted his hand in the turf, drove his shoulder through BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy and somehow kept his knee hovering just an inch or two above the grass. He churned his legs through the tackle, broke free and ripped off a 55-yard run before he was brought down from behind, admittedly ‘‘gassed,’’ at the BYU 8-yard line.

It was the play everyone was talking about after the game Saturday, a 17-14 victory for unbeaten Notre Dame. It woke up a sleepy crowd. It energized a sluggish Irish sideline.

But it only led to three points.

That has been Notre Dame’s offense in a driving-fans-nutshell this season. In 34 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, Notre Dame has a mere 16 touchdowns. The Irish also have 10 field goals and have come away empty-handed eight times. That 76 percent scoring rate in the red zone is 83rd in the nation. Compare that with Saturday’s opponent, Oklahoma, which is second only to Clemson, scoring 32 times on 33 chances, including 25 touchdowns.

The Irish, meanwhile, are second in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing just four touchdowns and six field goals in 19 attempts by opponents, so they know just how critical those possessions are on both sides of the ball.

‘‘We have to execute in the red zone,’’ Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin said. ‘‘We have to realize the importance of getting down there and getting points. Four trips for 10 points last week, that’s not going to get it done.’’

Getting down there hasn’t been the issue for Notre Dame, which, for all of the offense’s struggles, has moved the ball relatively well between the 20s, with an opportunistic defense chipping in by providing some short fields. But the offense gets bogged down as the end zone gets closer. The three plays after Riddick’s 55-yard scamper were a perfect microcosm.

On first-and-goal from the 8, Notre Dame ran three straight times. Cierre Wood picked up two yards on first down, no yards on second down, and Riddick was tackled for a 1-yard loss on third down. Fans booed the play-calling, but Martin insisted quarterback Tommy Rees made the right read at the line of scrimmage each time.

The Irish just blew it each time.

‘‘We’re going to run the ball when we get good looks,’’ Martin said. ‘‘On those three plays, we got good looks to run the ball. We have to do our job up front and block the defenses. We wouldn’t have run the ball if they weren’t good looks.’’

Riddick pointed the thumb at the backfield, saying he and Wood got impatient with the goal line so near and didn’t wait for the holes to open. Each play was called to be run between the tackles, but each tackle was made on the outside. Riddick admitted the lure of the end zone can make patience a difficult virtue.

‘‘Naturally, obviously, because it’s right there,’’ he said. ‘‘You can smell it. You can see it. But it all goes back to being detail-oriented.’’

Irish coach Brian Kelly said he already was working on addressing the issue on Sunday morning. Against BYU, kicker Kyle Brindza missed a 40-yard field goal after a third-down false start pushed the Irish back out of the red zone in the first quarter, and he missed a 28-yarder in the second quarter.

‘‘Two missed field goals, those conversions, those have to be touchdowns on those drives,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘We can’t settle for fields goals.’’

Or worse, settle for nothing at all.

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