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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. USC

By · October 20th, 2009 · 0 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. USC

The Irish lost another heart-breaker in South Bend Saturday. The latest defeat at the hands of the Trojans makes it eight straight and 0-5 for head coach Charlie Weis against one of Notre Dame’s chief rivals.

In many respects, this game was more of the same. Numerous missed tackles and breakdowns in the secondary combined for poor defensive play while the offensive line continued to struggle against a three and four man pass rush.

The players fought until the bitter end, but three plays from the four yard line weren’t enough to pull out a victory.


The offense wasn’t dominant, in fact many of the numbers are season-low totals. But they scored four touchdowns against a unit that had allowed only three all year and certainly did enough to win against a very tough defensive team. In large part the production wasn’t there, but the efficiency was pretty good considering the competition.

Notre Dame averaged 4.9 yards per play and gained 367 yards of total offense, both season lows. The Irish tied their season-high output against Michigan with 27 first downs (five on penalties), fairly evenly dispersed on the ground (10) and through the air (12). Weis’ play-calling was pass-heavy (31 rushes to 44 pass attempts), but he did turn to the ground game on multiple short yardage situations.

Seven runs were called on nine short yardage opportunities (two or fewer yards), and the ground game achieved a first down five times (71.4 percent). Just like the first five games, the Irish offensive line delivered when tough yards were needed.

The negative and big plays were in opposite directions. Only seven negative plays (including five sacks) were recorded, but the Irish also generated a paltry three explosive gains (all passes), their lowest of the season. These three plays averaged a respectable 30.3 yards, but only accounted for season-low 24.8 percent of the total offense. Without these three plays the Irish averaged 3.8 yards per snap.

The offense was nearly perfect in the red zone, only failing to score a touchdown on the final drive of the game. Additionally, the Irish converted 35.7 percent of third down opportunities despite needing more than five yards on half of them.


The running game appeared stagnant, but the numbers tell a slightly different story, particularly when accounting for the dominant Trojan run defense.

Notre Dame was surprisingly efficient on the ground, albeit not overwhelmingly productive. The offense rushed for only 82 yards on 31 carries, but gained 110 yards on 26 carries when sacks are not included. The former is good for a paltry, season-low 2.6 yards per carry, but the latter is worth 4.1 yards per carry.

Considering there were no big running gains to boost these values, the rushing attack was very efficient, albeit lacking in explosive plays. Moreover, the ability to convert short yardage situations on the ground speaks to solid run blocking by the offensive line.

Had the Irish not played from behind most of the game, it is possible the rushing attack would have helped control the clock and keep the porous defense off the field.


It is unfortunate that the Heisman race is all about perception and momentum because Clausen played as well as he could given the situation.

Officially, his stat line reads 24 of 43 for 260 yards, two touchdowns passing and one rushing.

Unofficially, excluding five balls he threw away, he completed 63.2 percent of his passes at 6.8 yards per attempt and 10.8 yards per completion despite fives sacks, countless hurries, and increasingly small passing windows.

He didn’t force the ball, managed the game, and nearly led the Irish to a fourth consecutive comeback win in the final moments of the game. And he did it all against a defense that had allowed no passing touchdowns and only 173.8 yards per game through the air.

He is a gutsy, competitive leader with unquestionable toughness and quite possibly the best arm in college football.

Wide receivers Golden Tate and Robby Parris were the two primary beneficiaries of Clausen’s passing. The former hauled in eight balls for 117 yards (14.6 yards per reception) and two touchdowns while the latter caught nine passes for 92 yards including a crucial 13-yard gain on fourth and ten during the final drive.

Tate proved again to be a lethal receiving threat and always seems to rise to the occasion when it is needed most. Parris has emerged as a legitimate third option (assuming the injury isn’t serious) for Clausen.

The real negatives of the passing game were a lack of big play ability and the inability to protect the quarterback.

The Irish had a season-low three explosive pass plays (more than 20 yards) and one came via a fake field goal. While these gains averaged 30.3 yards, they were only good for 24.8 percent of the total offense, the lowest in any game this year. Without Michael Floyd the Trojan secondary was content to play press-man coverage, disrupt the timing of routes, and pressure Clausen to prevent down field throws.

Additionally, pass protection has to be a concern. USC is a dominant pass rushing team, but allowing three and four defenders to consistently generate pressure is inexcusable. After considerable progress last year and zero sacks in the first two games, the offensive line has allowed 14 sacks (one per 10.4 pass attempts) over the past four outings. With all but one starter returning from last year’s front five, it is puzzling how much the pass blocking has regressed.


It is difficult to sugarcoat how poorly the defense played. Notre Dame was only effective in containing the Trojan rushing attack, and selling out to stop the run cost them dearly in other areas. In what has become a recurring theme, Irish defenders tackle poorly and allow the play to come to them rather than attacking.

The Irish allowed a season high 501 total yards on only 62 plays for a gaudy 8.1 yards per play and surrendered more than 30 points for the fourth time in six games. Despite running 13 fewer plays, USC outgained the Irish by 134 yards.

The Irish defense allowed five scores in five red zone appearances and a 46.2 percent third down conversion rate, the latter despite forcing third and long (more than five yards) on nine of 13 third down plays (69.2 percent). Entering the game USC’s offense struggled in both areas, scoring touchdowns on only 60 percent of red zone appearances (61) and converting third downs at a rate of only 28.8 percent (113).

And the bad news doesn’t stop there.

Better than 63 percent of the Trojan offense came from big gains as 11 plays accounted for 319 yards (29 yards per play). The percentage of big-play offense and number of explosive plays are both season-highs for the Irish defense.

This was a problem through the first five games and will continue to be a huge liability for this defense and this team. Without these big plays USC averaged 3.6 yards per play, only better than Irish opponents Purdue and Washington.

First down defense was also problematic before the bye week, and it hasn’t been corrected. The Irish held the Trojans to two or fewer yards on 55.2 percent of plays, but surrendered five or more yards 44.8 percent of the time. In other words, it was completely hit or miss. This inconsistent play allowed USC to average seven yards per first down play.


The one bright spot of the day was the run defense. Unfortunately, co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta had to stack the box and sell-out to stop the Trojan rushing attack. The result was wide open USC receivers all game long.

USC gained only five first downs and 121 yards on 33 attempts for a 3.7 yard per carry average. Without sacks that number grows to 4.6 but three big gains accounted for 65 yards (21.7 yards per rush). Without these big plays, the Trojans managed only 2.7 yards per carry.

Entering the game USC averaged 208 rushing yards per game at 5.5 yards per carry. Holding them to the totals noted above is a significant feat.

Additionally, the Irish defense held USC to only 3.4 yards per first down rush. In the first half the performance was even better as the Trojan offense averaged only 2.6 yards per carry on first down.

Perhaps most significant was holding the explosive Joe McKnight to only 4.2 yards per carry after averaging 7.1 yards per rush in his first five games.

The only negative was short yardage run defense. USC faced short yardage nine different times and called a running play on seven of them. Five (71.4 percent) went for first downs.


Easy releases and soft coverage proved costly for the Irish Saturday. The passing numbers are simply staggering.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley completed 65.5 percent (19 of 29) of his passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns in a career outing. If the production wasn’t enough, the efficiency certainly was.

Barkley averaged an absurd 13.1 yards per attempt and 20 yards per completion. The 13.1 yards per attempt is more than four yards higher than any other game this year while the 20 yards per completion is the season-high value by more than six.

Eight Barkley passes tallied 254 yards (31.8 yards per attempt) and accounted for 66.8 percent of the passing yardage and 50.7 percent of the total yards. Put another way, 13 percent of the plays produced over half the yards.

But even without the big plays Barkley averaged six yards per attempt and 11.5 per completion. The former is the second highest total surrendered by the Irish defense on the year while the latter is a season-high.

Particularly troubling was the susceptibility to play-action and poor first down pass defense. On two separate short yardage third downs, Barkley completed passes for 23 and 60 yards. On first down the Irish allowed 8.9 yards per pass attempt, including sacks as negative passing yardage. Excluding the three sacks elevates this value to 11.7 yards per first down pass attempt.

Tight end Anthony McCoy and wide receiver Damian Williams enjoyed excellent days. Despite being a known deep threat, McCoy did the most damage with 153 yards receiving on only five catches (30.6 yards per reception) while Williams hauled in four balls for 108 yards (27 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.

About the only bright spot of the pass defense was the ability to get pressure on the freshman signal caller. The Irish managed to record a sack once every 9.7 pass attempts.

Special Teams

It was a mix of good and bad on special teams.

The Irish averaged only 37.8 yards per punt and 20.7 yards per kickoff return in addition to allowing a blocked extra point attempt.

However, the fake field goal was one of the best calls of Weis’ tenure and directly led to a touchdown.


When a team always needs last second heroics to win, things aren’t always going to break their way. The Irish were living on borrowed time, needing plays in the final moments of their previous three contests to seal the deal. Nevertheless, the team came out fired up and ready to play.

That is the biggest positive from this game. There is no quit on this team. Some of of that is due to (finally) having talented leadership in the upper classes, but some of it is undoubtedly a result of Weis’ aggressive coaching style and all-in attitude. He deserves a lot of credit for the heart and determination this team exhibits on a weekly basis.

Offensively, the Irish struggled against a USC defense that followed the New York Giants 2008 Super Bowl game plan: get pressure with four and play one or two-deep, press-man coverage. The game plan worked to perfection as head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Rocky Seto took advantage of their deep and talented defensive line. It wasn’t complicated, but it was certainly effective.

The press-man coverage slowed the release of the Irish receivers, relegated tight end Kyle Rudolph ineffective, and prevented quick throws to counter the Trojan pass rush. Clausen had precious little room to operate and spent much of the day avoiding pressure. When Weis used max protection the seven defenders in coverage made open targets more exception than rule.

It is puzzling how the offensive line’s pass protection has regressed, but Weis’ play-calling didn’t make protecting the passer easy. Screens and draws were rarely used to keep USC’s defensive linemen off balance and Weis did little to disguise the intent of the play, often putting Clausen in the shotgun and spreading the field. These types of tendencies needed to be avoided. Against a talented Carroll defense, tendencies are unforgivable and make execution extremely difficult.

The lack of commitment to the running game was also puzzling. Counting sacks as passes the Irish only ran the ball 34.7 percent of the time, i.e. a pass was called on better than 65 percent of snaps. Playing from behind can slant the play selection but given the success of the running game and inability to consistently protect Clausen, it seemed ill-advised to be so pass-heavy.

On defense, the game plan wasn’t bad. Tenuta tried to take away USC’s best offensive weapon—their ground attack—by stacking the box and forcing Barkley to win the game. Everything worked except the part where Trojan receivers ran to wide-open spaces.

The reality is that Tenuta has to pick his poison.

He can opt to not blitz but will rarely generate pressure with only the front four. Opposing quarterbacks will have time to throw and eventually their receivers will get open. Under normal circumstances this leads to a bend-but-don’t-break approach where defenders keep everything in front of them and force consistent execution. Poor tackling all but undoes this advantage.

The alternative is blitzing to generate pressure. This leaves the Irish secondary in a precarious position which, as this year has demonstrated, does not produce favorable results.

It seems that the constant shift in defensive philosophies (Rick Minter’s 4-3, to Corwin Brown’s 3-4, to Tenuta’s blitz-happy 4-3) and unorthodox defensive coaching responsibility (co-defensive coordinators with somewhat conflicting defensive philosophies) is preventing the Irish defense from playing to their potential. Constant change with young players has a way of doing that.

The close outcome of the game seems to point to a step in the right direction. But the reality is that the Irish only did some of the things necessary to win the game (win turnover battle, big special teams play, multiple defensive looks), and failed to do others (avoid establishing play-calling tendencies, protect Clausen, bend-but-don’t-break).

The game wasn’t as close as it seemed (8.1 to 4.9 yards per play, 134 yards more offense for USC) and a lot of luck went Notre Dame’s way including four fumbles, none lost, and five first downs from penalties. The determined effort from the Irish players took advantage of these opportunities, but this only serves to mask several, fundamental coaching deficiencies.

Good offenses don’t allow the opposition to consistently pressure the passer with three or four defenders, good defenses don’t have multiple breakdowns in coverage, and average teams tackle much better than the Irish. Additionally, no game should end with an extra down and timeout. The clock management at the end of the contest certainly cost Clausen and company another play.

There is plenty that needs remedied on this team, and a close loss to a good opponent shouldn’t overshadow that. With an average defense this Irish squad is staring 5-1, or possibly 6-0, directly in the face.

Regardless, it is time to move on. After a deflating loss the Irish must maintain focus and continue to play emotional football over the second half of the season. If Notre Dame can show the heart they did against the Trojans for the remaining six games, they could very well win out.



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