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

By · October 10th, 2009 · 2 Comments
How Good Are the Irish? A Mid-Year Offensive Statistical Review

Bye weeks are good for many things.

For head coach Charlie Weis this week was an opportunity to rest key personnel with injuries, self-scout the first five games, and get the reserves meaningful practice repetitions.

For fans it is a chance to reflect on (and potentially readjust) their season expectations and, this year, to get a break from the heart palpitations that accompany nail-biting wins.

But here at Clashmore Mike we use the bye week to review the statistical performance of the team. While the individual games (Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Washington) provide some insight, a mid-year review in the context of the competition is a better indication of how the Irish are playing.

So, just like last season, the bye week will be used to benchmark Notre Dame’s production on offense (2008 mid-year and year-end) and defense (2008 mid-year and year-end) to the competition.

This discourse focuses on the resurgent Irish offense saving the defense for a future installment.

Why Benchmark?

Last season the Irish began 4-2 and looked the part of a vastly improved team.

However, at the time of the bye week the first six opponents had an average AV Ranking of 65.3 and the Irish strength of schedule was only 80th best in the country. Additionally, the four wins came against teams ranked lower than 50 in the AV Ranking while the two losses came against two teams ranked better than 30. The second half of the season featured stiffer competition and Notre Dame struggled through a 3-4 finish.

This year is eerily similar as Notre Dame has four wins against teams that have combined for only 10 victories, losing to the only opponent with a winning record. The first five opponents have an average AV Ranking of 67.6 with only two teams—Michigan and Washington—ranked higher than 40. Currently, the Irish have played the 82nd toughest schedule.

In other words, the numbers only tell part of the story. Poor competition can artificially inflate/deflate a team’s offensive/defensive production. Benchmarking to the competition (at least partially) removes this bias by appropriately and accurately measuring a team’s performance.

This doesn’t mean the 2009 Irish aren’t improved from last year, especially on offense. It also doesn’t mean they will falter down the stretch for another mediocre record. But it does mean that a closer look is needed to accurately assess the magnitude of the team’s production.

First Things First, Let’s Get Logistics Out Of The Way

While college football isn’t professional baseball, there are still a litany of statistics. It isn’t necessary to pour through them all. Not only is this a daunting task, but some metrics are more pertinent than others and incorporating every statistic can detract from the purpose of the evaluation.

As such, I have parsed the available data into 23 statistics divided into the following five categories:

  1. Miscellaneous
  2. Offensive efficiency
  3. Total offense
  4. Rushing offense
  5. Passing offense

The pertinent statistics for each category are presented in tabular form and include the numbers for Notre Dame and the averages of their first five opponents.

Each table has six columns:

  1. Statistic — The statistical quantity of interest
  2. Notre Dame — The value of 1. for the Irish offense
  3. Notre Dame Rank — The rank of 1. for the Irish offense
  4. Opponent Average — The average defensive value of 1. for Irish opponents
  5. Opponent Average Rank — The average defensive rank of 1. for Irish opponents
  6. PR — The performance ratio of 1. for Notre Dame (for a detailed description of performance ratios see the discussion here and here). Values greater than zero indicate the Irish are performing above the average level their competition allows, values less than zero are indicative of below average performance.

These numbers were taken from the NCAA statistics website and are accurate as of October 4, 2009. Nota bene: these values do not incorporate the performance of Notre Dame’s opponents over the bye weekend.

Looking At The Category-less

Ball control is phenomenal, penalties have been costly, and continued minimization of turnovers will produce more victories.


[table id=87 /]

There are two primary corollaries to good ball control, a fresh Irish defense and tired opposing defenses. Notre Dame is first in the country in time of possession and have owned a clock advantage in four of their first five contests (Washington is the only exception).

Much of this is due to only five (four meaningful) turnovers. While the Irish defense hasn’t forced an overwhelming number of fumbles (four) or recorded many interceptions (five), the offense has taken especially good care of the ball. Without such good ball protection Notre Dame could easily be 1-4 rather than 4-1.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen has only thrown one interception per 74 passes, and it can be argued that one of those two picks was not his fault. Moreover, the Irish running backs have only two fumbles on 180 rushing attempts. Both are very impressive.

Penalties are really the only area of concern, and it isn’t the number (seven per game) or yards (58.6 per game) as much as it is the timing. Several big gains and scoring opportunities have been negated by penalties. Procedural miscues, in particular, are rarely excusable.

Effective Is Nothing, Efficiency Is King

While the kicking has been good, there is room for plenty of improvement scoring touchdowns in the red zone and on third down.

Offensive Efficiency

[table id=83 /]

Relative to 2008, the offense has increased the efficiency of all three categories in the table above. Red zone touchdown and third down efficiency have improved moderately, while red zone efficiency has increased dramatically. In all three categories the Irish perform at about the level their competition allows.

The pedestrian third down conversion rate is puzzling given the time of possession numbers above, but the reality is that Notre Dame doesn’t get to third down that often.

The Irish have faced 162 play series, needing a third down play only 62 times (38.3 percent) to move the chains. In other words, Weis is doing a good job with play-calling on first and second down and the execution has followed.

However, when the Irish do reach third down, they are frequently in third and long (62.9 percent) or need three or more yards (74.2 percent). In these down-and-distance situations running the ball is a less viable option and the offense becomes pass-heavy (32 passes to 14 runs). One-dimensional offenses aren’t overly difficult to defend, even on a down-and-distance basis.

On third and short (two or fewer yards) the conversion rate is much higher, mostly because Weis has been able to rely on the ground game. Out of 16 third and short situations, only two pass plays have been called (12.5 percent). Nine of the 14 runs have been good for first downs (64.8 percent) but two failed attempts came in garbage time against Nevada.

Excluding these two plays Notre Dame has converted on an astounding 75 percent of its third down short yardage running plays. It isn’t easy to pick up two yards on the ground when a defense knows its coming, and the front five and running back Armando Allen deserve a lot of credit for such a high success rate.

Red zone touchdown efficiency has been marred by mistakes as Clausen and company managed to score touchdowns only 57.1 percent of the time they cross the opponent’s 20-yard line. The red zone offense was particularly bad last week, struggling to punch it in against the best red zone defense they faced through the first five games.

Cute play-calling (a quarterback draw on third and five at the Michigan 10-yard line?), a fumbled snap, penalties, and dropped and overthrown passes have all contributed to a poor red zone offense that frequently has to settle for field goals over touchdowns.

To remedy this it might be a good idea to use the running game. The Irish have proven they can run the ball in short yardage situations but the relatively few number of rushing touchdowns (see below) suggest the ground game is underutilized in the red zone.

With a small improvement in red zone touchdown efficiency the large increase in red zone efficiency is indicative of an improved kicking game. Freshman Nick Tausch has proven to be a reliable addition to the roster connecting on 10 of 11 field goal tries for the season (seven for eight in the red zone).

The Totalitarian State Of Affairs

At a cursory glance it looks good, but red zone touchdown efficiency rears its ugly head again and the inflated numbers don’t stack up well against elite teams.

Total Offense

[table id=84 /]

At first glance, nearly everything looks good. The Irish rank in the top 10 in three out of the five categories and have produced PR’s at a rate near—or above—20 percent. Only two categories are the exception, points per game and touchdowns, and both are directly tied to the poor red zone touchdown efficiency outlined above.

The 32.6 points per game have come by winning the second quarter where the Irish hold a 41-point edge in scoring (minus 4-point combined differential in the other three quarters). It seems that halftime adjustments are made by the opposition but are not countered by Weis and his staff.

The caveat is competition.

The gaudy numbers and high rankings above have come against many below average defenses. A comparison to (arguably) the top two teams in the country shows that Weis’ offense is good, but not great.

For example, while the Irish are averaging 470 yards per game, they have faced defenses that surrender almost 395 yards per contest. The positive PR’s are a good sign of above average production and efficiency, but do not rank near the top of the country.

Florida and Alabama have average total offense PR’s of 0.62 and 0.39 respectively (compared to 0.21 for the Irish). This has come against teams with an average total defense rank of 59 for Florida and 73 for Alabama, both better than Notre Dame (average total defense rank of 82).

So while Notre Dame’s offense is routinely performing at a level higher than their competition typically allows, it isn’t on par with the dominant teams in the country who have generated much better PR’s while playing better defensive competition.

What About That Pound-It Running Game?

Improvement yes, dominant no.

Rushing Offense

[table id=85 /]

It’s nice to see the emphasis of the off-season coaching hires show up in the box score. Last season the offensive line dramatically improved their pass protection. This season the running game is markedly better.

Running backs coach Tony Alford has certainly upgraded his corps of backs who have shown excellent ball protection, better vision, and a much more decisive running style. Offensive line coach and running game coordinator Frank Verducci has reduced the number of missed assignments by the front five as offensive linemen consistently get hat-on-hat at the line of scrimmage and at the second level.

The result is an improved rushing attack that nearly meets the minimum production needed to consistently compete at an elite level. The running game will never be a first-strike weapon in Weis’ offense, but it doesn’t need to be to have success.

The Irish have proven they can run the ball when they need to (as indicated by the 75 percent short yardage third down conversion rate), and that may be the biggest differentiating aspect between this season and the previous two.

Additionally, the Irish have averaged 148 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rushing attempt through the first five games. Those numbers are awe-inspiring, but they are certainly better than last year.

Without sacks the Irish yard per carry average increases to 4.7 and without Clausen’s runs this value improves to five yards per attempt. The top two running backs—Allen and fellow junior Robert Hughes—are producing above both rates, averaging 5.1 and 5.3 yards per carry respectively. After showing a penchant for timid and soft running last season, both Allen and Hughes have looked much more imposing this year.

The production on the ground does, however, come with an asterisk. Even with the improvement from 2007 and 2008 and the ability to convert short yardage situations on the ground, the Irish are far from dominant.

The PR’s for the rushing offense average out to nearly zero indicating the running game is just about what opposing defenses allow. For comparison purposes Florida’s PR average in the running game is just over one (i.e. on average they nearly double the output of their defensive competition).

Notre Dame’s effectiveness (yards per game) and efficiency (yards per carry) PR’s just over zero, and it isn’t because Weis has focused his play-calling on the passing game. The offense is nearly at an even split, running the ball 180 times compared to 163 pass attempts.

Is This The Best Air Attack In The Country?

It’s the biggest contributor to the total production and the efficiency ain’t half-bad either.

Passing Offense

[table id=86 /]

There is no doubt that Clausen’s right arm and the passing game is the strength of the Irish offense. Even without wide receiver Michael Floyd, Clausen has plenty of weapons including wide receiver Golden Tate, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and Allen. The rest of the receiving corps has good top-to-bottom depth and matches up well with most secondaries in the country.

The passing offense has been both effective and efficient. The Irish rank better than 15th in six of the eight passing offense categories. Additionally, the interception ranking would be 15 spots higher if Crist’s Hail Mary pass against Michigan State were excluded.

Perhaps most impressive are the 9.9 yards per attempt and 172.5 passing efficiency numbers. Both rank second best in the country and are a true testament to Clausen’s upgraded pocket presence, accuracy, and improved decision-making. It is rare for a passing offense to operate at this level of efficiency regardless of competition.

About the only negative is protecting the quarterback. The front five has allowed nine sacks in the last three contests after surrendering none in the first two games. A few (two) against Purdue can probably be attributed to Clausen’s injury-degraded mobility, but even with only seven sacks the Irish would rank 38th and allow one sack per 23.3 pass attempts.

Like the total offense, the production in the passing game has been (at least partially) inflated by poor defensive competition. The Irish have faced defensive teams with an average passing defense rank of 78, generating an average passing PR of only 0.21 (compared to 0.33 for Florida and 0.29 for Alabama). But this is likely artificially low as there isn’t much room for improvement.

Going For Broke

Definition: Big—or explosive—plays are rushing gains of more than 15 yards and pass completions of more than 20.

Last year the offense relied heavily on big gains. The Irish had 58 explosive plays for 1583 yards (27.3-yard per play average) that accounted for 38.3 percent of the total offense. Without these big plays Notre Dame averaged 2.5 yards per rush, 4.2 yards per pass attempt, and 3.3 yards per play.

Through five games this year Clausen and company have recorded 36 big gains for 1126 yards (31.3 yards per play). These plays have accounted for nearly 48 percent of the total offense.

Not unexpectedly, the majority of these plays have come through the air as 23 passes have accounted for 859 yards (37.3 yards per play), or 53.4 percent of the passing offense. Without these gains Notre Dame has averaged 5.4 yards per pass attempt and 8.7 yards per completion.

So the passing game has not only increased the frequency and production of the down field throws, it has also been dramatically more efficient without them. This is indicative of a methodical offense that takes calculated risks, i.e. does not force throws down the field and takes underneath routes when deep patterns are covered.

On the ground the story is quite different as 13 big runs have accounted for 267 yards (20.5 yards per carry). This is good for 36.1 percent of the total rushing output. Excluding these plays the Irish average a paltry 2.8 yards per carry.

So while the production in the running game is up, the consistency is lacking. The Irish are on pace for over 31 runs of more than 15 yards, nine more than last year, but the per carry average without them is only 0.3 yards per carry better than 2008.

Where Do The Irish Go From Here?

The Irish are a good, but not elite, offense.

Third down and red zone touchdown efficiency both need improvement. Fortunately, the Irish haven’t needed third down conversions too often and the red zone touchdown efficiency problems are easily correctable.

Eliminating self-inflicted mistakes will go a long way in helping this team reach it’s scoring potential. It’s tough to complain about nearly 33 points per game, but with such an advantage in time of possession more points are certainly desirable.

The running game would also benefit from better efficiency and more consistency (read less reliance on the big play). Averaging 4.1 yards per carry is nothing to balk at, but it has been largely aided by the 13 big rushes, and isn’t the self-imposed standard of 4.6 set by Weis in the off-season.

While the efficiency numbers in the passing game are about as good as it gets, there are many other statistical categories where the production is likely inflated by poor defensive competition. The Irish offense doesn’t measure up particularly well against Alabama and Florida, both of whom have faced tougher defensive competition.

But the reality of the matter is that the Irish—through no fault of their own—haven’t faced a good defensive team. Former athletic director Kevin White’s scheduling has produced a very modest early season slate. Since they are largely untested, the Irish offense is really an unknown commodity.

This will change after the bye week when USC arrives. The Trojans boast a stellar defensive unit that ranks in the top five in points per game (3), yards per game (5), rushing yards per game (5), and pass efficiency (3). Notre Dame won’t face a better defense all season.

To further the cause, Boston College and Connecticut also field solid defensive units. The Eagles have the 20th ranked scoring defense and rank in the top 30 in four other major defensive categories while the Huskies rank fourth in total defense and are in the top 20 of four other major defensive categories.

In other words, the second half of the season will determine if the Irish offense is for real.



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