Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. USC
To put it mildly, USC had their way with the visiting Fighting Irish. In most games you can find a silver lining, but in this contest looking for good in the Irish performance is an exercise in futility.
While Notre Dame stayed even in turnover margin, they failed to enter the red zone, held the ball for over eight minutes less than their Trojan counterparts, ran 17 fewer plays, and converted less than 15 percent of their third down tries.
The game was a totally dominating affair for the second straight year leaving many Irish faithful wondering about the future of head coach Charlie Weis.
The Irish offense managed only 91 yards on 49 plays for a 1.9-yard per play average. In fact, the first 11 Notre Dame possessions resulted in nine three-and-outs, one interception, and the final play of the first half. Moreover, the offense only possessed the ball for 17 of the first 45 minutes of play and had only four first downs (one the result of a penalty).
It’s not surprising the defense surrendered 448 yards of total offense and 38 points. They were on the field nearly the entire game.
Against Syracuse, the Notre Dame running game hit an epic low. It didn’t seem possible that the Irish could take a step backwards. USC proved otherwise.
The Irish ran the ball 27 times for 50 yards for an average of 1.9 yards per carry. Even removing sacks results in only 3.4 yards per carry. Even more depressing is the fact that 31 of the 50 rushing yards came on two plays. Excluding these two plays and sacks the Irish running game averaged only 2.3 yards per carry.
The ineptitude of the ground game is directly responsible for the poor third down conversion percentage as the Irish spent much of the day in third and long.
But if the running game was inept, the passing attack of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, et al. was inexplicably incompetent. Clausen completed 50 percent of his 22 attempts for a paltry 41 yards. That translates to 1.9 yards per attempt and 3.7 per completion. Both numbers are unfathomable for an offense designed to use the pass as its primary weapon.
Mix in two interceptions and four sacks, and it was a season low for Clausen and the Irish offensive line. Additionally, the longest pass play of the day was for only 11 yards.
If possible, the numbers get even worse when big plays are subtracted. For only the second time all season, the Irish failed to register a big play in the passing game and generated only two on the ground. Removing these two plays the offense averaged only 1.3 yards per snap.
Looking only at the box score underlines a terrible defensive performance. In reality, the defense kept Notre Dame in the game for as long as possible before tiring out in the first half.
The Trojans ran 66 plays for 448 yards at a clip of 6.8 yards per play en route to 22 first downs and 38 points.
On the ground USC ran for 174 yards on 33 rushing attempts for a 5.3-yard per carry average, with three runs accounting for 97 yards. Subtracting sacks, the per carry rate is 6.1, subtracting big plays it dips to 3.3.
The normally stout Notre Dame secondary also had a poor outing. Despite recording three interceptions, the Irish allowed Mark Sanchez to complete 71 percent of his passes for 267 yards at a rate of 8.6 yards per attempt and 12.1 yards per completion. The Irish defense also allowed five pass plays of more than 20 yards, at an average of 26.8 yards per play.
In fact, it was the big play that was the Irish undoing. Of the 448 yards of total offense, 231 came from eight plays. Those eight plays were good for over 51 percent of the Trojan offense at a rate of 28.9 yards per play. Subtracting big plays results in only 3.7 yards per play for USC.
The Irish also allowed the Trojans to convert five of six red zone possessions into points and move the chains on better than 45 percent of third down attempts.
It really isn’t possible to have a bright spot in a 38-3 drubbing but the special teams seem to fall into this category. Placekicker Brandon Walker continues to be solid after a shaky start to the season, converting his only field goal of the day, a 41-yard try.
The Irish also only allowed four yards per punt return and 11 per kickoff return.
The return teams, however, continue to struggle. With the talent and speed of Armando Allen, George West, and Golden Tate, it is puzzling how the Irish cannot get more from their return units.
To describe the offensive performance as anything more than pathetic would be a gross exaggeration. This game looked eerily reminiscent of 2007: the woeful and incompetent Irish offense failed to control the ball or change field position and gave the opposing team a short field early and often.
The precipitous decline of the Irish offense over the latter part of the season is coincident with the second half of the North Carolina game when opposing defenses determined the way to stop the Irish offense.
As I have discussed ad nauseam, this is a relatively easy affair. Put pressure on Clausen with three or four, drop seven or eight, keep everything in front of you, and force Notre Dame to patiently move the ball via consistent execution in the short and intermediate passing game and/or running the football.
Notre Dame’s defense played with heart and passion, but was overmatched and unable to maintain a high level of effort after being on the field the overwhelming majority of the first half.
It’s difficult to fathom how or why the Irish have sunk to the level of football they are currently playing, but it is an absolute certainty that this team is not 35 points less talented than USC.