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

By · December 12th, 2008 · 4 Comments
How Good Are the Irish? A Year-End Offensive Statistical Review

Notre Dame has concluded their regular season, and a reflection on the Irish offense’s progress (or lack thereof) is warranted. The mid-year numbers are here, and this analysis was performed in similar fashion by benchmarking against the competition.

Facing the 73rd toughest AV Ranking strength of schedule, the Irish only managed to go 6-6. But more troubling than winning only half their games against a pedestrian schedule is a 1-4 away record, with the lone road win coming against a winless Washington team.

A seemingly strong start to the 2008 campaign marked by improved protection of quarterback Jimmy Clausen, a dynamic vertical passing game, and several wins, faded with underwhelming performances against North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Syracuse, and USC.

In reality, the first half of the 2008 season was only a mirage. The Irish managed wins against subpar competition using their only weapon, throwing the ball down the field against one-on-one coverage. It wasn’t clever or well-crafted, but it was often effective as the Irish had a clear talent advantage against nearly every team they faced.

Defenses adjusted as the recipe for stopping the Irish offense was revealed: get pressure on Clausen with three or four, drop seven or eight, and force the Irish to move the ball on the ground or with consistent execution in the short and intermediate passing game. Notre Dame lacks the ability to do the former and the patience to accomplish the latter.

The result was a reduction in third down conversion rate and red zone efficiency (if that was even possible) coupled with an increase in turnover margin. The preferred and most successful weapon in the first six games was no longer an option. The degree to which opposing defenses took away the big play is painfully obvious when comparing the Irish offense to others around the country (see below).

Thus follows a statistical review of Notre Dame’s offense for the 2008 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 12-9-2008.

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 Average and Opponent Average Rank columns below refer to the average defensive values for Notre Dame’s opponents. The Notre Dame and Notre Dame Rank columns refer to the Irish offense. Comparing the numbers in this manner benchmarks Notre Dame’s offensive performance to their defensive competition.

Let’s Look At Things From 50,000 Feet


[table id=72 /]

Despite a lackluster running game the Irish managed to control the clock more than their opponents. On the season Notre Dame averaged just over two minutes of possession more than the teams they face. In reality, this is about par as their opponents averaged about two minutes less than the Irish.

Notre Dame also managed to keep penalties fairly minimal. The 56th place ranking is a little misleading, as the spread on penalties is fairly minimal. Accounting for fewer than 50 yards in penalties per game is respectable.

The turnover margin, however, is where the problems begin. Frustrated with the inability to move the ball in large chunks during the second part of the season, Clausen forced far too many throws. The result was a –5 turnover margin for the last six games after being dead even through the first six.

Who Said You Needed To Be Efficient?

Offensive Efficiency

[table id=73 /]

With the exception of turnover margin, third down and red zone efficiency are the two strongest statistical corollaries to winning football games.

The Irish are nearly last in the country in both.

For the season Notre Dame converted under 35 percent of third downs. It isn’t surprising, however. The Irish faced third and more than five yards on better than 78 percent of their third downs and third and long on more than 69 percent. Very few teams are able to convert long third down distances with any consistency.

But even more alarming than the 97th ranked third down efficiency is the 116th ranked red zone efficiency. The Irish only managed to convert 68 percent of their tries against teams that routinely allow over 81 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20 to result in points.

Remarkably, over the second half of the season this was an improvement. Through the first six games Notre Dame ranked dead last, converting only 55 percent of red zone opportunities into points. The second-half season increase was largely due to an improved kicking game as the Irish actually regressed scoring touchdowns.

Through the first six games of the year Notre Dame scored touchdowns 54.5 percent of the time they crossed their opponents’ 20-yard line. This was good for a pedestrian 83rd ranking, but the second half of the season was atrocious.

On the year the Irish offense scored touchdowns less than 50 percent of the time in the red zone, hardly indicative of competent offensive football. Going down-field isn’t a viable option on a short field.

Was There Really That Much Improvement?

Total Offense

[table id=74 /]

After the first few games of the season it looked like the offense had turned the corner. The second half or the year saw significant regression. The Irish offense failed to average points, yards per play, and yards per game at the rates their opponents allow.

In other words, the Notre Dame offense wasn’t even able to produce at an average rate.

Against teams that surrender more than 25 points per game Notre Dame averaged 22.7. Scoring a single touchdown against Michigan State, a shutout at the hands of Boston College, and posting only a field goal against the stingy Trojan defense was mostly to blame.

Against teams that allowed 5.3 yards per play the Irish gained five. After a four-game stretch against Purdue, Stanford, North Carolina, and Washington where Notre Dame averaged better than six yards per play, the offense was relegated to fewer than five yards per snap. The low point came in the form of a resounding 1.9-yard per play effort against USC.

And against defenses that gave up over 357 yards per game, the Irish managed fewer than 345. Similar to the per play output, the Irish eclipsed the 430 yard mark of total offense for four straight games before being held to 292 yards against Boston College and a pathetic 91 against USC.

Surely We’re Going To Pound It

Rushing Offense

[table id=75 /]

After the second consecutive off-season of proclamations about the running game from head coach Charlie Weis Irish fans envisioned the days of Jerome Bettis, Randy Kinder, and Tony Brooks.

The results of the 2008 season were hardly comparable.

Notre Dame ranks no better than 98th in yards per carry, rushing touchdowns, and running yards per game. Even more disappointing is the fact that this has come against teams that aren’t particularly stout against the run.

The Irish were able to manage only 3.4 yards per rush against defenses that gave up 4.1 yards per carry. If sacks are removed the rushing average increases to four, but falls sharply to 3.1 when the 22 big runs are removed. Equally troubling is the fact that the longest run by an Irish running back this season was 21 yards.

Additionally, Notre Dame managed to score only 10 times on the ground, approximately half as much as their opponents allowed. Whether this poor ground scoring production is a result of play calling or ineptitude is irrelevant, the Irish need more points from the running game.

Perhaps the largest contrast lies in the yards per game output. Notre Dame’s opponents allowed 155 yards per contest but the Irish were only able to manage about 113 per outing.

The best rushing performances were against Purdue, Washington, and Navy. Against these three teams the Irish averaged 226.7 yards per game on the ground. But the results aren’t as promising considering these teams allow better than 180 rushing yards per game. Moreover, against San Diego State and Purdue (218 rushing yards allowed per game), the Irish managed only 146 yards per game on the ground.

Perhaps They’ll Get A Passing Grade?

Passing Offense

[table id=76 /]

Thought to be an early strength, the Irish passing game regressed over the last six games of the season. At the mid-year point the Irish averaged better than their opponents surrendered in yards per attempt and completion, completion percentage, passing touchdowns, sacks, and yards per game.

That is hardly the case now.

Notre Dame’s vaunted passing attack dropped almost two yards per attempt and completion over the second half of the season, averaging just what their opponents allow for the year. Despite averaging better than seven yards per attempt and 13 per completion against Washington and Syracuse, the Irish failed to shine in the remaining four contests, ending the year with 1.9 yards per pass attempt and 3.7 per completion against USC.

After the 14 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions in the first six games, the Irish accounted for only six and nine, respectively, in their last six contests. Additionally, after posting better than 270 yards passing per outing in the first half of the season Notre Dame regressed to 191 in the second half.

The brightest spot for the Irish passing game this year was the improvement protecting the quarterback. The Irish surrendered 38 sacks fewer in 2008 than they did in 2007, finishing the season with only one sack per 21 pass attempts. This is somewhat overstated, however, since Clausen was still pressured by poor pass rushing teams using only three and four defenders for much of the season.

Relying On The Big One

As mentioned above the Irish thrived on the big play early in the year. At the mid-year point Notre Dame’s offense was compared to Missouri, Oregon, and Penn State (chosen for specific reasons), in an attempt to benchmark it.

The goal of this exercise was three-fold. First, comparing the number and per play averages of the big plays outlines the explosiveness of the Irish offense. Second, examining the percent of the offense that comes from the big play determines whether or not the Irish rely too much on it. Finally, comparing the average yards per play without big plays speaks to the degree of offensive efficiency.

Disclaimer: data from the Missouri vs. Nebraska game is not included in this analysis. It is not expected that this significantly changes the trends.

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=77 /]

Comparing the big plays of the Irish offense to that of the Tigers, Ducks, and Nittany Lions leads to some interesting conclusions.

First, the Irish have fewer runs over 15 yards than any of the other offenses. This isn’t necessarily unexpected as the Irish are a pass-first team. What is startling, however, is the per run average for the Irish. Notre Dame only averages 18.7 yards per big run compared to the next lowest value of 25.4 for Penn State.

But the passing numbers aren’t much different. While the Irish average about what the other teams do, they have hit on only 36 big pass plays. Only Oregon, a run-heavy team, trails them.

Overall this leads to a lower total number of plays and average. The Irish average 4.8 big plays per game at a rate of 27.3-yards per play. Both values are the lowest of all four teams, an indictment of the relatively benign Notre Dame offense.

Total Offense – Big Plays

[table id=78 /]

With only 38.3 percent of the total offense coming from big plays, the Irish rely on it less than nearly all three of the other offenses. This, however, seems to largely be a function of the low per play average for the Irish detailed above.

The Irish average the fewest yards per carry and nearly tie the Ducks for fewest yards per pass when big plays are not counted. For a pass-first team this does not bode well.

The overall result is a 3.3-yard per play average when big plays are subtracted. This is lower than Missouri, Oregon, and Penn State. The Irish are a more pass-heavy team, so they should more closely mimic the Tigers, but average over 1.5 yards less per play.

What Does It All Mean?

In nearly every meaningful statistical category the Irish offense performed at-or below-the rate opposing defenses allowed. What is more disconcerting is the quality of the opposing defenses. The average ranking for Notre Dame’s opponents is, well, average.

But it doesn’t take a better than average defense to be effective against a predictable and one-dimensional offense, i.e. the modus operandi for the Irish is well established.

The inept rushing attack forces the passing game to carry the load. Teams are allowed to drop seven and eight defenders, keeping everything in front of them. The lack of consistent execution in the short and intermediate passing game forces Clausen to take ill-advised shots down field, frequently resulting in turnovers.

For the Irish to significantly improve a running game must surface. One-dimensional offenses are a liability and an effective running game not only minimizes the potential for turnovers, it also achieves manageable down and distances and is an asset on a short field.

In other words, a running game would directly correlate to improvement on third down, in the red zone, and in turnover margin, three areas the Irish struggle.



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