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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Washington

By · October 6th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 1,881 views
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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Washington

You can say the Irish are a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them.

If last week was good for hypertension, this week was enough to incite a heart attack. In what is becoming a recurring trend, Notre Dame needed late-game heroics from quarterback Jimmy Clausen to secure victory.

The Huskies deserve credit. Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian led a determined squad that played well throughout the contest. The Huskies went punch for punch with the more talented Irish who had no answer for defensive coordinator Nick Holt’s red zone scheme.

As the numbers below illustrate, two themes resonate throughout. The game was ripe with big plays (seven runs for more than 15 yards and 12 passes of more than 20 yards between the two teams) and was also largely decided by red zone defense as the Irish managed only 16 points on four first and goal opportunities and the Huskies scored only 10 on four first and goal second half tries.

Head coach Charlie Weis should be thankful that the defense—and Clausen—stepped up when it mattered most.

Offense

It was a bipolar affair. In several categories the Irish offense was more prolific than any game this season, in others it was the worst performance of the year.

Notre Dame ran the least number of plays (60) for the most yards (530) en route to 23 first downs. The play-calling was almost perfectly balanced with 29 runs and 31 passes, but it was the air attack that flourished as almost 80 percent of the total yards came via Clausen’s right arm.

Additionally, the offense netted its highest per play average on the year, edging their output against Nevada (8.4 yards per play) with a staggering 8.8 yards per play.

But that’s where the good news ends.

While it’s difficult to find fault with the numbers above, the Irish had season-high totals in negative plays (9) and turnovers (two), a season-low in third down efficiency (20 percent), and failed to control the clock for the first time all year.

Moreover, there was a heavy reliance on the big play. Notre Dame had 11 big gains for 371 yards (33.7 yards per play), accounting for 70 percent of the offensive production. Without these plays the per snap average falls from 8.8 to a season-low 3.2 yards per play.

But the biggest negative was red zone efficiency.

Officially, the Irish scored five times in five red zone tries. Unofficially, the Irish had six red zone appearances (they reached the Husky 20-yard line on their third drive) that resulted in only 26 points (out of a possible 42).

On first and goal the offense was even worse.

Notre Dame faced first and goal four times and ran 10 plays (five runs, five passes), averaging -1 yards per rush and -0.4 yards per pass. The result was only 16 points (out of 28). Whatever Holt was doing, it worked, and Weis can expect future opponents to study and replicate it.

While this red zone production is troubling and potentially due to lack of proper preparation, Weis deserves credit for taking field goals when given the opportunity. Points figured to be a commodity in this contest as the Husky defense entered the game ranked 31st in red zone efficiency and 13th in red zone touchdown efficiency.

Rushing

The running output in this game was artificially slanted by big plays and the five times Clausen slipped on the wet field.

With these slips the Irish attempted 29 rushes for 108 yards (3.7 yards per carry), but these numbers are inflated by big gains. Four runs were good for 104 yards (26 yards per attempt) without which the Irish averaged 0.2 yards per carry. Subtracting sacks increases this value, but only to one yard per rush.

Without Clausen’s slips, the Irish attempted 24 rushes for 118 yards at 4.9 yards per carry, a much more respectable number. Subtracting the four big gains, however, results in only 0.7 yards per carry.

In other words, four runs accounted for the overwhelming majority of the rushing output and the Irish struggled to consistently move the ball on the ground against a woeful run defense.

Consistency in the ground game wasn’t a problem on first down where the Irish enjoyed the most success (7.6 yards per carry). Despite this, runs were only called on 39 percent of first down plays. This is particularly puzzling considering the game situation: rain, porous Irish defense, opponent that converts third downs at nearly a 60 percent rate on offense and can’t stop the run on defense (5.8 yards per rush, 195.8 yards per game entering the contest).

As far as personnel goes, the highlight of the game had to be running back Robert Hughes. For the second straight week Hughes ran with purpose, determination and conviction, making decisive cuts to gain 71 yards on only eight carries (8.8 yards per attempt).

Perhaps even more important was his two-point conversion run. After being briefly stopped by the Husky defense Hughes bullied his way into the end zone showing the type of power fans have been craving for.

If fellow running back Armando Allen gets healthy and Hughes keeps up his bruising style, this duo could be a great one-two punch moving forward.

Passing

Simply put, Clausen is playing out of his mind. Only two poor decisions on the year (the fumble this week and interception last week) have marred otherwise superb performances.

His pocket presence has dramatically improved from last year as he routinely extends plays and connects with receivers down the field.

This was constantly on display Saturday as he completed 23 of 31 passes (74.2 percent) for 422 yards and two touchdowns. The 13.6 yards per attempt and 18.3 yards per completion were second only to his performance against Nevada.

Additionally, Clausen completed seven throws for big gains (more than 20 yards) that totaled 267 yards (50.4 percent of the total offense), a 38.1 yard per completion average. But while the running game relied on these big gains, Clausen did not. Even without these seven plays he averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and 9.7 yards per completion, both season-highs.

About the only negative of his performance was three sacks and unsure footing on the wet field, neither entirely under his control. After allowing seven sacks in he last two games, pass protection has to be a concern for Weis (one sack per 18.1 attempts on the year).

Most of Clausen’s production came via junior wide receiver Golden Tate whose production has sharply increased since the injury to Michael Floyd. Tate caught nine balls for a ridiculous 244 yards (27.1 yard average) and a touchdown. He also took a reverse 31 yards on the first offensive play of the game.

Defense

Like the offense, it was a mixed bag for the defense.

The Irish came up big three times on the goal line (see below), but played poorly on first down, surrendered 30 points (for the third time this season), several big gains, 457 yards of offense, and 5.8 yards per play.

Additionally, the defense allowed a last-minute drive to force overtime. A three-point lead with 1:20 to play and the ball deep in the opponent’s territory should be enough to win.

Yards came on the ground and through the air as Washington ran 19 more plays (nearly five minutes more time of possession) with balanced play-calling (39 rushes, 40 passes) and production (176 yards rushing, 281 yards passing).

Washington didn’t consistently move the ball and recorded a season-high (tied with Purdue) eight explosive plays for over 47 percent of the total offense (219 yards, 27.4 yards per play). Excluding these big plays the Irish held their opponents to only 3.4 yards per play, a very respectable number.

Additionally, the Huskies converted almost 44 percent of third downs and stayed ahead of the chains for most of the day (less than 65 percent of third downs were for five or more yards).

These favorable down and distances came as the Irish allowed 5.5 yards per first down play and held the Huskies to two or fewer yards on only 14 out of 34 first downs (41 percent).

Much of the Husky offensive production was enabled by atrocious tackling persistent throughout the contest. Perhaps the only exception was freshman linebacker Manti Teo (10 tackles) whose instincts and physicality are far better than the other members of the Irish linebacker corps. In some respects it is troubling that the more experienced players at this position haven’t developed more.

But in the red zone, particularly on first and goal, the Irish came up big.

On three second half drives the Huskies had first and goal.

The first started on the Irish six yard line and resulted in a touchdown. The second started on the eight yard line and resulted in a turnover on downs. Twice quarterback Jake Locker sneaked the ball from inside the one, and twice he was repelled. On the third drive Washington had first and goal from the one yard line not once, but twice. The Irish defense held both times to force a field goal.

It is virtually impossible to stop an offense so close to the goal line so many times. The magnitude of this performance cannot be understated.

Rushing

The run defense struggled against a team that entered Saturday averaging 3.3 yards per carry and less than 110 rushing yards per game.

The Huskies gained 176 yards on the ground at 4.5 yards a clip. But it was really about big plays as three runs went for 77 yards (25.7 yards per attempt). Without these three plays Washington averaged only 2.8 yards per carry, a number that increases to 3.7 yards subtracting sacks.

The performance on first down was particularly poor as Notre Dame’s defense allowed 4.9 yards per rush. In the second half, despite several stops at the goal line, the Irish allowed 5.2 yards per first down rush.

Running back Chris Polk did most of the damage, repeatedly breaking tackles and totaling 136 yards on only 22 carries (6.2 yards per rush). Quarterback Jake Locker also chipped in with 33 yards on 16 carries (2.1 yards per attempt) but was sacked three times for a loss of 19 yards. Without sacks Locker was more efficient, averaging four yards per carry.

Passing

Locker wasn’t overly efficient, but he was especially effective down the field.

For the day the Husky signal caller completed 22 of 40 attempts (55 percent) for 281 yards at seven yards per attempt and 12.8 yards per completion. The completion percentage and yards per attempt values were the second lowest (Nevada) for the Irish defense.

Five of Locker’s passes went for 142 yards (35 yards per attempt) accounting for 31.1 percent of the total offense and 50.5 percent of the passing yards. Without these five plays the Huskies averaged only four yards per attempt and 8.2 yards per completion.

Perhaps the most impressive feat for the Irish defense was recording three sacks on the day (one per 13.3 pass attempts) against a strong, mobile quarterback.

Special Teams

With the exception of the return game, the Irish played well in special teams. Notre Dame did not attempt a punt return and averaged only 21.5 yards per kickoff return.

Freshman punter Ben Turk saw his first collegiate action and averaged a modest 39.5 yards per punt return. Kicker Nick Tausch connected on all five field goal attempts and both point after tries. For the year Tausch has hit 10 of 11 field goal attempts, with a long of 46.

The Irish coverage units also played well holding Washinton to only 18.4 yards per kickoff return and allowing zero punt return attempts.

Summary

The defense played well enough in the first half to build an early lead. Washington scored on the first drive but didn’t cross the Irish 20-yard line again until the second half. The Irish offense, however, struggled in the early going and couldn’t score touchdowns on a short field.

Had the offense scored touchdowns instead of field goals, the game could have been far more one-sided. But that plays both ways, as Washington also had several excellent opportunities to put the game away in the second half.

This Irish squad—particularly the defense—may not play up to their potential, but they certainly have no quit in them. It is the former that is the problem, not the latter. The Irish have delivered in the clutch for three straight weeks, but games against inferior competition shouldn’t be so close.

Losing double-digit leads to UNC, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2008 didn’t teach this team not to play down to their competition. The difference between this year and last is luck at the end of contests, not the ability to protect leads and close out an opponent.

It is important to get to the bye week at 4-1, but those four victories have come against the 82nd most difficult AV Ranking strength of schedule and against teams that have combined for only 10 wins. The “winning is all that matters” mantra is only valid against a certain level of competition, and the Irish have proven little by winning four close games against mediocre opponents.

The situation will be decidedly different in two weeks as the Trojans come to town after a much-needed bye. The talent disparity will be much closer than any previous contest. Pete Carroll is 23-1 in non-conference games since 2004. USC runs the ball effectively on offense and, as always, fields a strong, physical defense.

The Irish can’t stop the former and have yet to face the latter and this will be the first time Notre Dame faces a quality opponent.

One thing is for sure, after October 17th the Irish will know just how good they are.

Furthermore

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