Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Michigan
Notre Dame lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds of an offensive shootout Saturday. The game proved to be a rite of passage for Wolverine freshman quarterback Tate Forcier and bolstered the resume of head coach Rich Rodriguez’s latest second-year turnaround effort.
For the Irish, another solid offensive outing was undermined by untimely penalties, a porous defense, and below average special teams play. On two separate occasions quarterback Jimmy Clausen led Notre Dame back from double-digit deficits only to see Forcier throw a touchdown pass to clinch a victory in the waning moments of play.
The Irish dominated the first half, gaining almost 140 yards more total offense and possessing the ball for over seven minutes more than their counterparts, but only had a three point lead to show for it. The final statistics were far closer (490 yards of offense for the Irish to 430 for Michigan, nearly a three minute time of possession advantage for Notre Dame), but the game likely should have been over at intermission.
Notre Dame gained 490 yards of total offense and 27 first downs (12 rushing, 13 passing and one penalty) via play-calling that was tilted towards the pass (58.3 percent passing plays to 41.7 percent runs). The Irish averaged 6.8 yards per play in mostly methodical fashion.
Only 36.9 percent of all yards were produced by explosive plays (runs of more than 15 yards, passes greater than 20 yards) as seven plays (two runs, five passes) accounted for 181 yards (25.9 yards per play). Excluding these plays the Irish still managed 4.8 yards per snap, a very respectable number.
The efficiency was there as well. The Irish converted better than 42 percent of third downs despite spending 71.4 percent of them needing five or more yards to move the chains. Perhaps more impressive, Notre Dame scored on four of its five red zone opportunities and had only four negative plays.
In other words, Weis’ gameplan worked well so long as the Irish didn’t hurt themselves. Seven untimely offensive penalties (for 60 yards) negated more than one substantial gain.
It was the coming out party for Armando Allen. All the pieces fell into place for the junior running back who carried the ball 21 times for 139 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. More than ever, Allen looked quick, tough and decisive with his cuts. He even managed to best his previous long run by recording a 24-yard scamper early in the game (that his long gain is only 24 yards is another matter entirely).
As a team Notre Dame ran for 154 yards on only 30 carries (5.1 yards per carry), recording two big runs for 39 yards. Even without these big gains, the Irish averaged 4.1 yards per carry.
For the second straight week the running game has performed both efficiently and effectively. While not the focus of Weis’ offense, the Irish have exceeded the level needed to compete for a national championship in each of the first two games. This is good news for many who thought the running game could be the Achilles’ heel of the 2009 offense.
If Saturday was an “off” day for Clausen, Notre Dame is in good shape.
Despite poor accuracy on many long throws, the junior completed nearly 60 percent of his passes (25 of 42) for 336 yards and three touchdowns. It was Clausen’s third consecutive game with more than 300 yards passing and, perhaps more importantly, the third straight contest without an interception.
The yards also came efficiently as the Irish signal caller averaged eight yards per attempt and 13.4 yards per completion. While these aren’t the flashy numbers from last week, both are more than respectable. Even without five big passes for 142 yards, Clausen still averaged 5.2 yards per attempt.
Sophomore receiver Michael Floyd seems to be solidifying himself as one of the top wide receivers in the country. Floyd was open most of the day and dominated the Wolverine secondary with a unique blend of size and speed on his way to catching seven balls for 131 yards (18.7 yards per reception) and a touchdown.
Opposite Floyd, Golden Tate chipped in with nine catches for 115 yards (12.8 yards per reception) and two touchdowns. With this receiver duo it is difficult to imagine anyone stopping the Irish passing game without consistently pressuring Clausen.
Finally, the Irish have yet to surrender a sack through 60 passing attempts and have only committed one turnover through eight quarters of play.
The defense had no answer for the Wolverine offense. Even in the first half when Michigan seemed to struggle, it was largely due to their own mistakes, not the play of co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s unit.
Forcier plagued the Irish with his improvisation, moxie and calm performance under pressure, becoming only the second (out of 20) freshman quarterback to defeat a Tenuta-coached defense.
The Rodriguez spread offense racked up 430 yards at a rate of 6.1 yards per play for 21 first downs (ten rushing, ten passing, one from a penalty) using a balanced attack (38 runs to 33 passes) that yielded nearly the same balance in yardage (190 rushing yards to 240 passing yards).
The story for the Irish defense was big plays and poor first down defense.
Forcier and company recorded seven gains for 185 yards (26.4 yards per play). These seven plays accounted for 43 percent of Michigan’s offense without which the average gain per play was only 3.8 yards.
The defense also failed to win first down, allowing 4.6 yards per play (3.2 yards per first down play in the first half, 5.6 yards per play in the second).
Despite the poor first down effort the Irish still managed to hold Michigan to a 35.7 percent third down conversion rate and force third and more than five yards on better than 85 percent of tries. This was offset, however, by allowing two fourth down conversions in as many attempts and three scores on four red zone appearances.
If the past two games have proven anything, it’s that Notre Dame cannot consistently stop the run.
Michigan amassed 190 rushing yards at five yards per attempt, a number that increases to 5.5 yards per carry when sacks aren’t included. Both Forcier and running back Brandon Minor averaged better than 5.3 yards per carry.
As outlined above, it was the big play that killed the Irish as 101 rushing yards came on only four rushing attempts. Without these four runs Notre Dame’s defense allowed only 3.1 yards per carry.
Similar to the poor first down run defense last week, Notre Dame surrendered 5.6 yards per rush (3.5 yards per first down carry in the first half, a gaudy 7.3 yards per carry in the second).
Stopping the run has to become the chief concern for Weis and Tenuta.
Despite some fairly solid passing numbers from Forcier, the secondary played pretty well Saturday. The inability of the Irish front seven to get home on blitzes put pressure on the defensive backs to cover for long durations. At some point receivers are bound to get open.
For the day Forcier completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (23 of 33) at a rate of 7.3 yards per attempt and 10.4 yards per completion. Three passes were big gains that averaged 28 yards per play. Excluding these three plays the Irish secondary only allowed 156 yards at 5.2 yards per attempt and 7.8 yards per completion.
The Irish performed a bit better on first down against the pass, allowing only 3.3 yards per play (4.7 yards per play with sacks excluded) .
For the second straight week safety Kyle McCarthy recorded an interception and the defense recorded two sacks.
Despite having five scholarship kickers and punters on the roster, Notre Dame can’t find dependable players to man their kicking and punting spots.
The Irish continued their excellent punt coverage (zero return attempts), but punter Eric Maust had a poor punt (28 yards) on the final Irish possession when changing field position was most needed.
Freshman Nick Tausch bounced back from missing a 28-yard chip shot to nail field goals of 34 and 42 yards, but consistently underwhelmed on kickoffs by hitting low balls that landed on or around the ten yard line.
The errant punting and kicking cost Notre Dame nearly ten yards in average field position for the day, a number that gets worse if McCarthy’s interception isn’t included.
Finally, the kickoff return unit averaged a respectable 33.3 yards per return, but the punt return team has only returned three punts for 27 yards on the year.
There was no good reason for Notre Dame to lose this game. Simply put, if you score 34 points, you should win. Furthermore, good football teams do not lose games they lead with three minutes remaining and possession of the ball.
It was evident on the final possession that Weis was trying to change field position and win the game by throwing down-field as the Irish defense hadn’t consistently stopped Forcier in the second half. But the Irish offensive line had blocked well all game and out-weighed Michigan’s front three by more than 50 pounds per man. Running the ball and forcing Rodriguez to use his timeouts was the appropriate strategy.
That said, while the Irish offense stopped itself with penalties and poor clock management (two delay of game penalties and four timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties), they did more than enough to secure a victory.
Notre Dame’s defense did not live up to its end of the bargain. The gameplan centered around making Forcier win the game, and, to his credit, he repeatedly torched the Irish defense to pull out the victory. Never down a significant margin, the Wolverine offense mixed in effective runs and ad-libbed passes to gain more than 270 second half yards.
But there were few adjustments from Tenuta who insisted on bringing pressure all game despite the freshman quarterback consistently escaping it and creating big plays with his feet. Entering the game it was imperative that the Irish defense not allow Forcier to extend drives with his mobility, something he managed to do all game long.
This game served to further expose the defensive weakness present even in the shutout against Nevada: the front seven cannot stop the run. If Notre Dame is going to beat teams that can run the football, Weis and Tenuta must find a way to shore up the defensive line, generate early leads, and control the clock.
A deficiency in any of these three areas will be problematic as opposing offenses are able to mix in the run and pass while gaining confidence as the game remains close.