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How Good Are the Irish? A Mid-Year Offensive Statistical Review

By · October 22nd, 2008 · 2 Comments
How Good Are the Irish? A Mid-Year Offensive Statistical Review

At first glance the Irish offense seems dramatically improved from a unit that spent last year near the bottom of the country in every meaningful statistical category. A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals a different story.

For example, through six games the Irish stand at 4-2, a far cry from the 1-5 record they held midway through the 2007 campaign. But the competition is at least partially culpable for the improvement in the win column.

The first six games of the 2007 season were against teams that finished the year with an average rank of 41.2 in the AV Ranking. Notre Dame went on to finish the year with the sixth toughest AV Ranking strength of schedule.

Fast forward to 2008 where the first six Irish opponents have an average AV Ranking of 65.3 and a strength of schedule that is only 80th best in the nation. Additionally, Notre Dame’s four wins have come against opponents outside of the AV Ranking top 50 while the two Irish losses have come to teams ranked 30 or better.

This illustrates the importance of appropriately measuring a team’s performance on the field.

In other words, when comparing statistics in football it is imperative to properly benchmark the numbers. Many times a team may exceed in one area only because their opponents are weak on the opposite side of the ball. While numbers can sometimes be skewed by game circumstances, over the course of the year these biases typically wash out.

What follows is a statistical review of Notre Dame’s offense through the first six games of the season. All statistics have been taken from the official Notre Dame football website and/or the official NCAA statistics website. All numbers are current as of 10-20-2008.

Obviously there is a litany of statistics that could be analyzed and compared. In the interest of brevity I have parsed the data into a manageable amount, presented in tabular form. The opponent averages and opponent average ranks below refer to the average defensive values for Notre Dame’s first six opponents of the 2008 season. The Notre Dame and Notre Dame Rank columns refer to Notre Dame’s offense.

First Things First, What Does The Total Picture Look Like?


[table id=63 /]

As is shown in the table above, the Irish hold about a two minute edge in time of possession against opponents who give up about the same. This is mostly due to dominating possession in the fourth quarter. On the year the Irish have more than a 12 minute disadvantage in first half ball control but have held the ball 21 minutes better than opponents in the final quarter of play.

Additionally, Notre Dame has been relatively disciplined, committing only 45 yards in penalties per contest (5.5 penalties per game). For such a young team this is a very respectable number.

But the bad news comes in the form of turnover margin.

The Irish have a net zero in turnovers on the year, putting them at 62 in the country. Arguably the most important statistical corollary to winning, Notre Dame is a resounding –7 in turnover margin in their two losses. Good-and certainly great-teams create turnovers on defense and minimize turnovers on offense. The Irish have a long way to go in this regard.

Give Me Efficiency Baby!

Offensive Efficiency

[table id=64 /]

But turnover margin is only the tip of the iceberg. The Irish offense has been very average, and very bipolar, on third down. In three of six games Notre Dame has converted around 25 percent of third downs. In the three remaining contests the Irish are nearly twice as good.

This pedestrian third down efficiency is mostly the result of long third down distance situations. The Irish have faced third and long nearly 70 percent of the time. In light of this, it’s surprising the Irish offense has been able to convert on third down near the rate their opponents allow.

Causing even more angst for Irish fans is an inability to score in the red zone. Notre Dame ranks dead last inside the twenty, converting only 55 percent of red zone opportunities into points. And this terrible performance comes against teams that allow better than 80 percent of red zone appearances to turn into scores. Hardly indicative of winning football, an inept kicking game is partially to blame and a woeful running game is also at fault.

After turnover margin, third down and red zone efficiency are the most important statistical corollaries to winning football games. Play-calling on first and second down must improve in order to give the Irish manageable distances on third down. Additionally, an effective running game must develop to help the offense on early downs and convert red zone appearances into points.

Well, They Aren’t Totally Offensive

Total Offense

[table id=65 /]

Thus far in 2008 Notre Dame is scoring points and gaining yards at about the rate opponents allow. While an improvement from 2007, the statistics above are hardly extraordinary. If it weren’t for a recent burst of offense the numbers would be far worse.

Through three contests the Irish offense was averaging more than 100 yards less than their opponents allowed. However, once offensive coordinator Mike Haywood began to spread the field the trend reversed. Through the last three games the Notre Dame offense is averaging about 75 yards more than their opponents surrender. The Irish scoring numbers share this trend.

In light of this it seems that a spread passing attack with quarterback Jimmy Clausen gives the Notre Dame offense the best option to move the ball and score points. It looks like head coach Charlie Weis’ game plan from the North Carolina game will become the rule rather than the exception.

Can I Take A Pass?

Passing Offense

[table id=66 /]

The strength of the Irish offense is clearly throwing the football. Notre Dame averages nearly a yard better per attempt and completion than their opponents allow. Additionally, the Irish are exceeding their opponents’ average by over 45 yards per contest through the air.

Averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, 12.1 yards per completion, and 271.8 yards per game is good without considering the competition. Furthermore, all three values are vastly superior to 2007 (5.2 yards per attempt, 9.2 yards per completion, and 167 yards per game). But these numbers are even better when benchmarked against opposing defenses.

The improvement in the passing game is also readily apparent in sacks allowed. In stark contrast to last season Notre Dame is surrendering only one sack per 24.3 passing attempts, good for 28th in the country. Considering the Irish offense’s proclivity to telegraph the pass, the ability to protect Clausen is even more astounding.

But Everyone Said It Would Be A Strength

Prior to the 2008 season many Irish fans had lofty expectations for a dominant rushing offense. A triumvirate of capable running backs, off-season weight and strength increases along the offensive line, and head coach Charlie Weis proclaiming a “pound it” mentality all seemed to point to a proficient running game.

Rushing Offense

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Instead, the Irish field one of the worse rushing offenses in the country. The Irish rank 109th in rushing yards per game. This is made worse by the fact that Notre Dame’s opponents surrender 55 yards per game more than the Irish backs have managed.

Additionally, the Irish running game is averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. Without sacks the yards per rushing attempt jumps to 3.9, but excluding the Purdue game this value dips back to 3.4. Running for 3.3 yards per carry is poor, but it is inexcusable against teams surrendering four yards per carry.

Finally, Notre Dame has only scored five times on the ground. With the running game as an afterthought it’s not surprising the Irish offense struggles to put points on the board inside the red zone.

Yes, But Are You Consistent?

Notre Dame’s offense has relied heavily on the big play throughout the 2008 campaign. With the exception of North Carolina, the Irish haven’t averaged more than four yards per play when big plays are excluded. But how does this compare to teams around the country?

Three teams were selected to benchmark the Irish offense: Missouri, Oregon, and Penn State. All three are quality offensive football teams with respectable records. Missouri is one of the best passing offenses in the country, Oregon one of the best rushing offenses, and Penn State operates in a very balanced attack. The diversity of these three offenses should provide a wide enough spectrum for this comparison.

Disclaimer: I could not find data from the Missouri vs. Nebraska contest so the statistics from that game are not included in this analysis. Additionally, Missouri, Oregon, and Penn State have played seven, seven, and eight games respectively. This will create a slight bias in the data as the Irish have only played six opponents. Averages, however, should not be effected.

Definition: A big play is a run of more than 15 yards and a pass of over 20. This is a rather arbitrary set of criteria but it isn’t expected that choosing slightly higher or lower values would significantly alter the conclusions of the analysis.

Big Play Offense

[table id=61 /]

From the data above, Notre Dame’s offense compares most favorably with the pass-heavy attack of Missouri. Despite having fewer plays in the passing game and a lower average per run, the Irish offense has nearly the same number of runs and a slightly higher average per pass. Additionally, the Irish compare favorably to all three teams in average yards per play.

Not surprisingly, the Irish rushing attack isn’t even in the same class as Oregon and Penn State. One or two additional games don’t make up for 20 more runs or seven more yards in per rush average.

More interesting are the offensive statistics with big plays subtracted. The total percentage of offense from big plays can be viewed as an indicator of a reliance on the big play. Similarly, excluding big plays, the average yards per rush, pass, and play are indicative of the ability of an offense to consistently move the ball.

Total Offense – Big Plays

[table id=62 /]

As shown above, the Irish rely on big plays for a similar percentage of the total offense, but struggle to move the ball consistently without these large gains.

Notre Dame averages 3.4 yards per play when big plays are subtracted from the total offense. This value is on par with only Oregon who employs a run-heavy offense. A more suitable comparison is with Missouri, an offense that uses the pass as a first-strike weapon. As the data above shows, the Tigers move the ball with far more consistency than the Irish, indicative of the 5.2 to 3.4 yard per play and 6.2 to 4.5 yard per pass averages.

What Does It All Mean?

Offensively, Notre Dame isn’t efficient on third down or in the red zone and has managed only an incompetent running game. This is mitigated by a proficient passing attack that has matured by leaps and bounds from last season. However, the latter is not enough to offset the former in games where the Irish lose the turnover battle.

Most objective observers know Notre Dame’s 4-2 record is at least partially courtesy of a weak schedule. While there is discernable improvement from 2007, Notre Dame is far from a good football team and a bevy of mediocre opponents make it difficult to wholly attribute increased offensive production to improvement of the team.

Analysis of the defense is forthcoming.



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