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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

By · September 22nd, 2009 · 0 Comments · 2,089 views
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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Christmas came early this year in South Bend. Notre Dame squeezed out a victory at the expense of the visiting Spartans Saturday, a game Michigan State had ample opportunity to win.

To be certain, the Irish did not win the game as much as Michigan State lost it.

All of the strategic coaching decisions favored head coach Mark Dantonio, and the Irish had no answer for quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Spartan receiving corps.

But despite solid execution throughout the contest, Cousins couldn’t deliver when it mattered most. On the second-to-last offensive play, Cousins overthrew a wide open Larry Caper in the back of the end zone. On the pivotal defensive play of the game, Notre Dame’s secondary was nowhere to be found.

The next play linebacker/defensive end Darius Fleming applied nearly the only pressure the Irish managed all game, forcing a poor throw from Cousins that safety Kyle McCarthy intercepted.

Multiple penalties nearly cost the Irish their second straight game. If head coach Charlie Weis focused on this during the previous week of practice, it didn’t show. Notre Dame committed 11 penalties for 99 yards, four of which resulted in Spartan first downs.

Offensively, quarterback Jimmy Clausen and company were fantastic. Nearly flawless execution is becoming routine, and one would be hard pressed to find a better performing offense in the country right now.

Defensively, there was little discernible progress from the prior contest. The front four continue to be a huge liability and co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s aggressive scheme generated very little pressure most of the afternoon (see below).

Offense

The offense is firing on all cylinders under Weis’ direction.

Through the first two series of Saturday’s contest Notre Dame ran nine plays (one run, eight passes) for 139 yards (15.4 yards per play) and two touchdowns, gaudy numbers regardless of the opposition.

Had the Irish defense been able to slow Michigan State, Weis might not have pulled back on the reins. But Michigan State owned the time of possession in the first quarter (3:42 advantage), and he had to turn the tables. Subsequently, Weis mixed equally effective runs and passes en route to a 12:42 advantage in ball control over the remaining three quarters of play (nine minutes for the game).

Without a doubt, the offense was both effective and efficient.

The Irish gained 437 yards on 71 plays (6.2 yards per play) via nearly even play-calling (37 rushes, 34 passes), recording 25 first downs (13 rushing, 11 passing, one via penalty) and scoring on each red zone opportunity.

Most of the yardage came in systematic fashion. Five big plays garnered 176 yards (35.2 yards per play) for just over 40 percent of the total offense. Without these gains Notre Dame still managed four yards per play, the lowest number of the young season but still much better than last year.

In what is becoming a trend of offensive efficiency, the offense ran only eight negative plays, had zero (meaningful) turnovers, and converted 45.5 percent of third downs. Moreover, the Irish faced favorable (less than five yards) third down distances more than either of their two previous contests (36.4 percent of third downs).

About the only negative of the day was surrendering the first two sacks of the season, but this hardly spells disaster. Through three games Notre Dame has allowed one sack per 48 passing attempts, a remarkable performance and a credit to both Clausen and the offensive line.

Rushing

Running back Armando Allen continued to impress, gaining 115 yards on 23 carries (five yards per attempt) and a touchdown. The junior is averaging just under 110 yards per game, but, perhaps more importantly, is running efficiently, gaining 5.5 yards per carry .

As a team Notre Dame ran the ball 37 times for 133 yards at 3.6 yards per attempt, but the yards per carry are artificially low due to the two sacks and quarterback kneels at the end of the game. Without these four plays the Irish averaged 4.6 yards per carry, a very respectable number.

Only one run by Jonas Gray went for 15 or more yards, so nearly all of the ground game was methodical (4.3 yards per carry excluding quarterback kneels, sacks and the 15-yard rushing gain).

Passing

Despite playing with an injured toe for most of the game, Clausen turned in another stellar performance. The junior signal caller has come into his own this season, showing grit and leadership that define the position. Right now there may not be a better quarterback in college football.

Clausen completed 71 percent of his passes (22 of 31) for 300 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. It was his fourth consecutive game with 300 or more yards passing and no interceptions. His 9.7 yards per attempt and 13.6 yards per completion speak to both his efficiency and ability to go down the field.

Four Clausen passes totaled 161 yards (40.3 yards per attempt) and accounted for 53 percent of the passing production as Weis was selective—but productive—going down the field. Without these plays the Irish averaged 4.8 yards per attempt and 7.2 per completion.

Wide receiver Golden Tate led the way for the receiving corps, hauling in seven catches for 127 yards (18.1 yards per reception) and a touchdown, including several big plays down the stretch.

Defense

While the offense has been nearly spectacular, the Irish defense has registered consecutive underwhelming performances.

Everything worked for the Spartan offense while defensive adjustments made little difference for the Irish. With the exception of McCarthy (nine tackles, one interception and two broken up passes), there was little to be excited about. It is rarely a good sign when both safeties are the top two tacklers on the team.

The Irish allowed 30 points and 459 yards of total offense at a gaudy 7.1 yards per play. Cousins and company recorded 27 first downs, of which 18 came through the air.

Five plays went for big gains but accounted for less than 33 percent of the total yardage. Without these five plays Michigan State still managed 5.2 yards per snap. In other words, Cousins and company weren’t flashy, but they certainly were effective.

If the production wasn’t enough, Notre Dame allowed Michigan State to convert 50 percent of third downs despite needing five or more yards on each one. The Irish also allowed three red zone scores on four chances.

The first down defense was simply awful. Out of 34 opportunities the Irish only held Michigan State to two or fewer yards eight times (23.5 percent) and allowed 7.6 yards per play.

The numbers are woeful but even worse considering the Spartan offense was on the field for so little time. Despite a nine minute time of possession disadvantage, Michigan State still managed two more first downs, 50 more yards passing, and nearly a yard per play better than the Irish.

Rushing

Notre Dame allowed a season-low rushing total, but it was only because Cousins was so effective Michigan State didn’t need the ground game.

The defense gave up only 105 yards (long gain of 18), but the Spartans only ran the ball only 25 times and averaged 4.2 yards per attempt.

On first down, i.e. when there is nearly an equal run/pass threat, Michigan State gained 5.4 yards per rush. Had Dantonio wanted to play ball control it certainly appears he could have.

Passing

Despite incessant blitzing, the Irish recorded zero sacks. For the year, Tenuta’s blitz-heavy defense has averaged only one sack per 25 pass attempts.

Despite being the perceived strength of the defense, Notre Dame’s secondary allowed 354 passing yards and two touchdowns on 26 of 40 passing (65 percent). For the game Cousins averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and 13.1 per completion, but was particularly effective on first down when he averaged 9.6 yards per throw.

Four passes accounted for 132 yards (37.3 percent of passing yardage) for an average of 33 yards per play. Excluding these plays Michigan State still managed 6.2 yards per pass attempt and 10.1 yards per completion.

Special Teams

Excepting the touchdown return in the Michigan game, the kick and punt coverage units have performed admirably. The Irish allowed only 22 yards per kickoff Saturday, and the Spartans attempted zero punt returns. In fact, no opponent has attempted to return through 12 quarters of action.

Freshman kicker Nick Tausch looked noticeably better on his kickoffs and notched two field goals, but also inexcusably missed an extra point attempt.

The return units showed slight improvement, although they still struggle. The Irish managed only 25 yards per kickoff return, but did return two punts for 33 yards.

Summary

To a large extent the Irish won in spite of their play, not because of it. This is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball. A team that averages 34 points through three games should be 3-0.

A win is a win, especially after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan. But the Irish need dramatic improvement on defense and elimination of costly penalties if they expect to continue winning, particularly after the loss of wide receiver Michael Floyd.

What About All That Blitzing?

Going forward the Irish defense must play better in the secondary and adjust schematically to pressure opposing quarterbacks. There is talent on the defensive side of the ball that isn’t showing on the field.

Secondary play has regressed considerably from recent years. With the exception of the Michigan game, opposing quarterbacks have thrown the ball relatively quickly. In other words, open receivers are as much a product of soft coverage as they are the absence of quarterback pressure.

But the lack of pressure is problematic, and it stems from two sources.

First, Tenuta is unable to generate pressure with only the front four as the recruiting shortcomings of Weis’ early years are beginning to show. This leads to more frequent blitzing than even Tenuta would like.

But it isn’t the frequency of blitzing that is the genuine problem. Tenuta has coached and called an aggressive defense for years with well-documented success. The scheme, however, must be adjusted as there is little deception when the Irish blitz.

On the overwhelming majority of plays defenders rush from a pre-snap position near the line of scrimmage. Opposing offenses not only know the blitz is coming, they also know where it is coming from. This negates any advantage blitzing affords by allowing the opposition to adjust protection. Moreover, it is rare that the Irish show a blitz and back out of it.

Notre Dame would be better served showing the same or similar pre-snap looks while changing who is blitzing. This gives quarterbacks the same pre-snap read and doesn’t allow for easy adjustment of the protection scheme.

Additionally, Tenuta needs to show blitz—then back out of it—with greater frequency. With all of the inexperienced quarterbacks the Irish face this year, confusion is just as good as pressure.

But the reality of the matter is that it all starts up front. The same problems that plagued the Irish in 2007 (poor offensive line play) are now showing up on the other side of the ball.

What Does The Loss Of Floyd Mean?

On offense the play-calling must remain unpredictable despite Floyd’s absence.

Last year the Irish offense struggled after Floyd went down in the Navy game. Play-calling against Syracuse and USC became extremely predictable without another potent receiving option opposite Tate.

Much of the early offensive success this season has been out of Detroit (two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back) and Regular (two wide receivers, one tight end, one fullback, one running back) personnel groupings as the Irish have proven equally adept rushing and passing the ball. Floyd, Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph provide three dynamic receiving options that keep defenses from loading the box. Without Floyd this will be much more difficult as teams cheat over to guard Tate.

It will be tempting for Weis to spread the field with multiple wide receiver sets to effectively throw the ball. This takes advantage of the Irish depth at wide out as there are few teams with equal secondary depth. All that is needed is protection for Clausen.

But this can also give an advantage to opposing defenses. Defending a one-dimensional offense is a relatively facile proposition, even on a down-by-down (or personnel grouping) basis. Much of the reason Clausen has remained upright this year has been balanced play-calling, i.e. maintaining an equal threat to run or pass on any down and out of any personnel grouping.

Moreover, running the ball is of vital importance to control the clock and keep the defense off the field. If the Irish become predictable passing the ball, the running game follows suit.

There is hope. Whether it is new offensive line coach Frank Verducci, a veteran unit or some combination of the two, the front five have dramatically improved from just a season ago.

The unit has performed well protecting Clausen and running the ball, even when opposing defenses expect it. The Irish have faced third down and short yardage nine times this year (excluding the last couple of drives running out the clock against Nevada). Weis has called a running play on eight of those occasions and was rewarded with a first down six times (75 percent).

This improved play and the expanded depth of the offensive line will prove extremely valuable without Floyd.

Furthermore

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