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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

By · October 27th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 1,790 views
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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

The Irish opened 2009 with a resounding 35-0 defeat of Nevada. While the Wolfpack offense turned the ball over three times—twice in potential scoring position—the game was a fairly one-sided affair. Notre Dame ran the ball well, controlled the clock, and displayed a dynamic downfield passing attack.

Since then, games have been anything but one-sided. Nevada may not be as talented as Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Washington, USC or Boston College, but upgraded talent doesn’t explain the close games that have become routine.

The Irish are unwilling or unable to dominate an opponent with inferior talent. The result is close games that could break either way. Had Montel Harris not fumbled inside the five yard line, Boston College would likely have extended their 16-13 lead, making it very difficult for an inconsistent Notre Dame offense to overcome a two-score deficit.

This game was decided by turnovers but remained close due to big pass plays from the Eagle offense and costly penalties by Notre Dame. The Irish were fortunate enough to force five turnovers (and not surrender any), but big gains from Eagle quarterback Dave Shinskie allowed Boston College to convert multiple long down and distance situations and keep the game close.

On offense, Notre Dame had its worst performance of the year. Penalties stalled multiple drives and quarterback Jimmy Clausen and company were unable to change field position in the early going. Furthermore, a lack of downfield passing contributed to poor red zone offense that is more problematic with each passing week.

For head coach Charlie Weis, there is plenty to correct on both sides of the ball. It seems that some aspects of the team have improved, while others have clearly regressed.

Offense

The Irish had 12 meaningful drives but only scored 20 points (two field goals and two touchdowns), their lowest total of the year. The offense gained 22 first downs (eight rushing, 12 passing, 2 via penalty) and 352 yards on 4.6 yards per play. The total yards and per play average are both season-lows and suggest that the offensive dominance in the first five games was at least partially due to poor defensive competition (discussion continued below).

The play-calling balance appeared to be even, but was actually pass-heavy. Officially, the Irish ran and passed the ball at a nearly even clip (37 runs to 39 passes). Unofficially, removing quarterback scrambles and sacks, a pass was called on more than 65 percent of plays.

The offense continues to struggle on third down, converting only five of 15 attempts (33.3 percent). The Irish spent better than half (eight of 15, or 53.3 percent) of their third downs needing five or more yards and only converted one of them. Many of the long third down distances were the result of untimely penalties as Clausen was sacked only once and Notre Dame recorded only six negative plays.

Scoring touchdowns in the red zone also continues to be problematic. While kicker Nick Tausch has proven to be a reliable weapon, getting seven points inside the 20-yard line is critical to putting teams away. The Irish crossed the goal line only once in four red zone tries and are only 16 of 29 (55 percent) on the year.

Similar to the game against USC, the offense only recorded three big plays for 74 yards that accounted for a season-low 21 percent of the total offense. Excluding these plays the Irish gained 3.8 yards per snap, about the average over the past four outings.

Like last year, an over-reliance on the big play coupled with infrequent use of the running game has proven limiting over the past two games. The blueprint on stopping the Irish is the same as it was a season ago: rush three or four, drop seven or eight, and force the offense to methodically march down the field. Without wide receiver Michael Floyd, this is not an overwhelmingly difficult proposition for opposing defenses. The Irish passing game lacks the requisite execution to consistently move the chains and Weis lacks the patience to run the ball.

The results are obvious. The decrease in scoring and production over the past two games is directly correlated to the inability to generate big gains in the passing game.

Over the first five games of the season Notre Dame average seven yards per play. Over the last two the Irish offense has gained 4.8 yards per snap. Correspondingly, over the first five games the offense averaged 7.2 big plays per game; over the last two, only three.

The absence of downfield throws against Boston College may have been by design, but without the big gains in the passing game the decrease in offensive production will continue until the running game is better utilized.

Rushing

What began with promise, has taken a turn for the worse. The Irish averaged 158 rushing yards per game through their first four contests, but only 98.7 yards per game over the last three.

Against Boston College Notre Dame gained 2.9 yards per rush, a number that increases to 3.4 removing the single sack. However, the Irish recorded only one run greater than 15 yards. Excluding the sack and this play the per carry average is a paltry three yards per attempt.

Running back Armando Allen led the way for the ground game. The junior from Florida gained 102 yards on only 21 carries (4.7 yards per attempt) and was particularly effective in the early going.

The ground game also continued its trend of strong short yardage efficiency. Excluding the fake field goal Weis called a run five times in short yardage situations and the front five paved the way for four first downs (80 percent). The only failed attempt was the fourth and goal run by Robert Hughes in the fourth quarter.

Passing

It seemed that Clausen’s pocket presence has regressed. The junior signal caller failed to step up in the pocket numerous times Saturday and created unnecessary pressure in the process.

Apart from this and low production in the passing game, Clausen was his mistake-free, efficient self.

He completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 246 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. For the year Clausen has 16 touchdowns to only two interceptions (one per 115 pass attempts), both indicative of his maturation and steady improvement from last season.

The performance was good for 6.3 yards per attempt and 9.5 yards per completion, both season-low values and indicative of the more conservative game plan. Only two passes were completed for more than 20 yards, accounting for 23.6 percent of the passing yardage. Without these plays the Irish averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and 7.8 yards per completion, both very respectable values.

Pass protection improved from previous weeks. Boston College didn’t blitz much but the front five largely controlled the Eagle defensive line and surrendered only one sack through 39 pass attempts. This performance is in stark contrast to the previous four games where the Irish surrendered one sack per 10.4 attempts.

Apart from Clausen, the brightest spot of the Irish passing game has to be the receiving corps. Ten receivers and tight ends have caught passes on the year and the reserves have filled in admirably with injuries to Floyd and (now) Robby Parris.

Additionally, Golden Tate has been outstanding. Despite being the number one focus of opposing defenses, Tate continues to deliver. Against Boston College the junior hauled in 11 receptions for 128 yards (11.6 per catch) and two touchdowns.

Defense

The Irish have progressed well in multiple phases of the game (against the run and on first down), but this progress seems to have come at the expense of the pass defense. The latter has contributed to poor third down defense and a plethora of big gains through the air.

This game was a microcosm of this phenomena.

The Eagles recorded 16 first downs (three rushing, 12 passing, one via penalty) and 349 yards en route to 14 points. Additionally, Notre Dame allowed 5.5 yards per play, tied for their lowest this season (Nevada).

First down defense was exceptional. Boston College ran 28 first down plays for only 3.4 yards per play. Only six of these plays gained five or more yards (24 percent) while 19 went for two or fewer yards. Each of those are season-best—or nearly season-best—values (against Michigan Notre Dame allowed only 3.3 yards per first down play).

But that is where the good news ends.

Entering Saturday’s contest the Eagle offense was atrocious on third down (32.2 percent conversion rate, 102nd in the country), but the Irish defense allowed them to convert 6 of 13 opportunities (46.2 percent). The second and third quarters were particularly problematic as Boston College converted five of their six (83.3 percent) third down tries.

The success came largely via big play. Twelve of 13 third downs were for seven or more yards. The Irish allowed five of these to be converted, all through the air.

Four of these five conversions were big plays. For the game Boston College had 11 explosive gains for 258 yards. The 11 plays ties a season-high and the 258 big play yards is second only to last week’s contest with USC.

These plays averaged 23.5 yards and comprised 74 percent of the total offense, another season-high. Without them the Irish defense only allowed 1.7 yards per play, by far the lowest value of the season. In other words, the Irish played very sound defense on 53 of 64 (82.8 percent) snaps, but the other 11 plays sustained drives.

Rushing

Any way you slice it, the run defense was great as the Irish stopped the strength of their opponent for the second straight week.

Notre Dame allowed just 70 rushing yards on 29 carries (2.4 yards per rush), only three rushing first downs, and a long gain of 15 yards. The yards and yards per carry were both well below the season averages for Boston College. The defense allowed a paltry 2.5 yards per first down carry, and only 0.4 yards per first down rush in the first half. After a big game last week, Harris gained only 38 yards on 22 carries for a 1.7-yard average.

A liability at the midpoint of the season, stopping the run now looks to be a strength. However, it seems to have come at the expense of the secondary.

Passing

With one very specific exception, the pass defense played well.

The Irish allowed Shinskie to complete only 48.6 percent of his passes (17 of 35) for 279 yards and one touchdown while forcing three interceptions, the last of which sealed the game. Notre Dame surrendered just 5.9 yards per first down pass, but only 1.5 yards in the second half (compared to 10.3 in the first). The problem stopping the pass was mostly on second and third down and in obvious passing situations.

Typically, low completion percentages result in low per pass attempt averages. This is not the case here.

Shinskie averaged eight yards per attempt and 16.4 per completion (the latter just behind Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley for the second highest this season), largely by going deep on long down and distance situations.

Boston College completed 10 big passes for 243 yards (24.3 yards per reception). These 10 plays accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total offense, and excluding them results in season-lows values for yards per pass attempt (1.4) and completion (5.1).

Eight of these gains took place in long down and distance situations. Three came on second down needing 10 or more yards to move the chains. Four came on third down needing eight or more yards for a first down. And the last came on fourth and 16, with the outcome of the game in the balance.

These types of breakdowns in the secondary are inexcusable. Shinskie had to throw the ball to sustain drives, the running game wasn’t working and the Eagle offense was frequently behind the chains. But time and time again Eagle receivers found wide open spaces.

Given the fact that the Irish recorded zero sacks through 35 pass attempts, a lack of pressure is at least partially to blame. But co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta has to find a way to stop making freshman quarterbacks look like All-Stars in Notre Dame Stadium.

Special Teams

Special teams continue to be good and bad.

The punting game was completely inept, averaging only 32.7 yards per punt. The return units were also ineffective with Tate returning one punt for eight yards and the kickoff unit averaging a paltry 17 yards per return. Both cost the Irish valuable field position.

The punt coverage, however, continues to be a strength. Opponents have only attempted three returns all year and Tausch also continues to impress. The freshman kicker is 12 of 13 for the season.

Summary

It is difficult to believe the Irish scored 20 points and won by only four with a 76 to 64 advantage in plays, five Boston College turnovers, and more than a five-minute advantage in time of possession.

The offensive game plan and play-calling was largely suspect.

Generically speaking, Boston College runs a soft cover-2 zone designed to prevent the big play and force consistent execution from opposing offenses.

The apposite offensive game plan is flooding the zone, using vertical routes to test the deep thirds, and running between the tackles. Given the 50-plus pound per man weight advantage of the Irish offensive line, the injuries in Notre Dame’s receiving corps, and the ancillary benefits of a strong running game, the last of these three options seemed like the most appropriate choice.

Additionally, Allen enjoyed great success in the early going. Through Notre Dame’s first four drives he carried the ball nine times for 59 yards (6.6 yard per carry average) and four first downs. For the remaining eight drives Allen only carried the ball 12 times, largely using stretch plays that were frequently ineffective and failed to utilize the previously mentioned size advantage of the Irish offensive line.

Moreover, if Weis was intent on a pass-heavy approach, the incessant quick outs and hitches would have been nicely complemented by double move routes.

More specifically, the deep route to Tate following Harris’ fumble was far too risky. Of the possible outcomes of that play-call, only one ends well for the Irish. Boston College had already recorded a safety and had a three-point lead. The Irish were on their own three yard line. There was a low probability of a big gain, but a high possibility of a big loss.

If opposing defenses can take away the deep pass, there is little left. Weis must have the patience to stick with the run as well as use a more diverse play-action package to open up the passing game.

Defensively, allowing 10 big pass plays to the 106th ranked passing offense is egregious and was the difference between a decent and dominant performance. In other words, a small amount of improvement would have made a huge difference.

In this game the defense maximized their chance of success. Solid first down play forced a host of long down and distance situations, but Tenuta’s blitzing frequently left holes in zones or one-on-one man coverage. On fourth and 16 with the game on the line you simply cannot let two receivers get wide open. If blitzing puts too much pressure on the back four, then it must be shelved.

The secondary plays with hesitation and consistently looks confused prior to the snap, both stemming from the incessant defensive change over the past several years. There is little reaction and few instances where members of the Irish secondary make a play on the ball while it is still in the air.

The effort of this squad is there, but the team continues to play down to their competition. It is much easier to be critical after a win, and Weis needs to be. This team is not playing to their potential and hasn’t for most of the season.

Furthermore

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