Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh
It was really a game of two halves (and four overtimes) for Notre Dame Saturday. Through two quarters of play the Irish held a three-minute time of possession advantage, outgained Pittsburgh 240 to 71 yards, and secured a two-touchdown lead. From the third quarter on Pitt reversed the fortunes, outgaining Notre Dame 275 to 146 yards.
Ironically enough, there were no strong statistical indicators Notre Dame should have lost this game. They held a +3 turnover edge and converted 37 percent of their third downs to 29.4 percent for the Panthers. Additionally, the Irish didn’t commit an overwhelming number of penalties, give up a gross number of sacks, and ran seven more plays.
Despite this, they lost to a visiting opponent with a backup quarterback who passed for only 168 yards, completed only 50 percent of his passes, and threw three interceptions. This all leads to the tenable conclusion that Notre Dame had no business losing this game.
The outcome of the contest was a strong function of situational events rather than underlying tendencies. The Panther defense was able to apply pressure with only three or four defenders, allowing them to drop seven or eight players into coverage. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen had precious few windows to thread the needle and a poor rushing attack to fall back on.
Untimely penalties, a lack of second half adjustments, and poor coaching decisions down the stretch ultimately led to the loss. The Irish were forced to settle for field goals in overtime and were lucky to delay the outcome of the contest for as long as they did.
Despite gaining 240 yards in the first half, the Irish offense looked mediocre for much of the day. Notre Dame managed a long run of just 15 yards en route to 115 yards on 40 attempts, an atrocious 2.9 yards per carry. The continued ineptitude in the ground game is primarily responsible for the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and achieve manageable third down situations.
The Irish offense scored touchdowns on only half of their red zone opportunities. Additionally, nearly 90 percent of third downs were five or more yards. Both are inexcusable given the talent Notre Dame has along the offensive line and in the backfield.
While Clausen was able to throw for 271 yards, the receivers averaged only 11.8 yards per reception, and the passing game was only able to gain 6.2 yards per attempt. These relatively low values are largely due to Clausen completing only 52.3 percent of his 44 pass attempts.
The inefficient passing game, combined with the inept running game, resulted in only 4.6 yards per play. Removing one big run and four big pass plays lowers this to an average of 3.2 yards per play. While big plays provided less than 35 percent of the total offense, the Irish could not move the ball with any regularity.
About the only bright spot on offense was the lone sack. Even though Notre Dame attempted 44 passes, Clausen was only sacked once. This is somewhat misleading, however, since many of his incomplete passes were the result of significant pressure from the Panther defensive front.
While LeSean McCoy was certainly the key to the Panther victory, Notre Dame’s run defense played pretty well. The Irish gave up 178 yards on the ground at a rate of 3.8 yards per carry. However, 72 of those yards came on four plays, bringing the average down to 2.9 yards per carry when big runs (and the two sacks) are not counted.
The Irish secondary surrendered only 168 yards through the air, allowing quarterbacks Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith to complete only 50 percent of their passes for a paltry 5.6 yards per attempt and 11.2 yards per completion. If the two big pass plays are removed, these numbers dip to 3.4 and 7.2 respectively.
In fact, all Pittsburgh had was big plays. The Panthers managed only 2.8 yards per play when the four big runs and two big passes are subtracted. This is evident in the 29.4 percent third down efficiency for the Irish defense and came despite good first and second down success for the Panther offense.
The Achilles’ heel for the defense in this game was fourth down and in the red zone. Notre Dame allowed Pittsburgh to convert all three of their fourth down attempts and score every time they crossed the Irish 20 yard line.
In what is becoming a recurring trend, the Irish return units performed poorly against the Panthers. Notre Dame managed only negative yardage on punt returns and merely 18.5 yards per kickoff return.
The kickoff coverage team continues to perform admirably, but the punt coverage unit allowed 11 yards per return and netted only 23.8 yards per punt. The Irish also allowed a blocked punt as punter Eric Maust took nearly a decade to kick the ball.
Placekicker Brandon Walker continues to improve. Walker was four of five on the day, most notably connecting on 48 yard field goal to send the game into the fourth and final overtime. While his single missed kick sealed the fate of the Irish, he was hardly the reason for the loss.
This Irish lost this game in the trenches and as the result of poor coaching adjustments.
The Irish offensive line couldn’t handle the front three or four of the Panther defense. Able to drop seven and eight defenders and play man/zone-under coverage provided Clausen with few open targets and took away fades in the red zone. The Irish counterpunch, an effective running game, all but disappeared after the first drive. Both should have been a focus for the Irish offense.
On defense, the Irish failed to contain McCoy in key situations. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh dialed up the screen against the predictably blitzing Irish front seven, springing McCoy into space where poor tackling led to large gains.
It also took the better part of three possessions for Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown to adjust to McCoy receiving direct snaps. This slow adjustment came despite the Panther offense using the same formation, pre-snap motion, post-snap fake, and play call every time. Similar to the game against Stanford (unbalanced offensive line), the speed with which the defensive staff makes adjustments is borderline egregious.