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Notre Dame vs. Connecticut: Keys to an Irish Win

By · November 19th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 2,010 views
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Notre Dame vs. Connecticut: Keys to an Irish Win

The Fighting Irish return to South Bend Saturday on the heels of their second consecutive loss and looking to avoid a second-half season meltdown. Despite the promise this squad showed early in 2009, the last handful of games have looked eerily similar to the last six games of 2008 when the Irish sputtered to a dismal finish.

Notre Dame’s opponent, the Connecticut Huskies, should not be underestimated and strongly resembles two previous Irish foes (Pittsburgh and USC) on the 2009 slate. The Huskies are better than their record indicates and match up very well against Notre Dame.

Connecticut Version 2009

Head coach Randy Edsall has his team playing tough, determined football. The Huskies are 4-5 entering Saturday’s game but have faced the sixth-best AV Ranking strength of schedule and have lost their five games by a combined 15 points to Cincinnati, Rutgers, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

In other words, Edsall’s troops have played very competitive football in losing efforts to several good teams.

The Huskies are ranked 49th in the AV Ranking with the 31st rated TPR, a 22nd ranked offense, but only a 62nd ranked defense.

Connecticut doesn’t protect the ball particularly well (minus one in turnover margin, 66th best in the country) or control the clock, averaging only 29:19 in time of possession (77). They are, however, very disciplined with only 33.4 yards in penalties per game—good for second best in the country.

Offense

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is a run-first play-caller and the Husky offense has an effective ground game. This directly contributes to a potent downfield passing game and excellent red zone touchdown efficiency (70.6 percent, 19).

Third down and overall red zone efficiency are another matter. Connecticut ranks 66th converting third downs and a more respectable 35th in red zone efficiency. The latter value is significantly bolstered by scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line as the kicking game hasn’t performed very well (9 of 16 on the year).

As noted above, Moorhead favors the run in his play-calling but the production is fairly balanced as the Husky offense averages 167.9 yards per game rushing (45) and 241 yards per game through the air (39).

The run-heavy approach and lack of passing yards makes the total offensive numbers appear pedestrian, but Connecticut routinely outperforms their defensive opposition in scoring, yards per play, and yards per game.

Moorhead splits the carries evenly between Jordan Todman (159 attempts, 826 yards, 5.2 yards per rush, 12 touchdowns) and Andre Dixon (158 carries, 730 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns). Both backs are very capable and ensure a fresh set of legs for the duration of the game.

Connecticut has performed well against fairly stout rushing defenses. Namely, the Husky ground game has produced 21 touchdowns (22) and over 40 yards per game more than opposing defenses typically allow.

Cody Endres and former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer are the signal callers for Moorhead. Both have played extensively, but Endres is the preferred option and has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,354 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions.

Endres operates a passing offense that is fairly average and with an offensive line that doesn’t protect the quarterback exceptionally well (19 sacks surrendered, 70). Despite this, Endres and Frazer have been effective enough to rank 39th in passing yards per game. The strength of the passing game is play-action and the ability to stretch the field. The running threat maintains an efficient passing unit that averages 7.8 yards per attempt (26) and 13.6 yards per completion (25).

Seven Husky receivers have double-digit receptions but Marcus Easley has nearly twice as many yards as any other target,the result of a gaudy 21.5-yard per reception average. Easley also leads the team with five receiving touchdowns.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Husky offense.

Connecticut Offensive Efficiency
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency38.96635.941
Red Zone Efficiency853581.761
Red Zone TD Efficiency70.51956.355
Connecticut Total Offense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game29.7422032
Yards368073328336
Yards/Play5.8464.937
TDs34602328
Yards/Game408.938332.138
Connecticut Rushing Offense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards151156125642
Yards/Carry4.2603.539
TDs21221135
Yards/Game167.945126.843
Connecticut Passing Offense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt7.8266.644
Yards/ Completion13.62511.347
Completion %57.7675856
Interceptions11711227
TDs10931136
Sacks19702539
Attempts/ Sack14.67213.741
Pass Efficiency127.66711740
Yards/Game24139205.347

Defense

The Husky defense is efficient, but average against the run and a mixed bag against the pass going against offensive teams that do not excel in either area.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s scheme is fairly basic, rarely using the blitz to generate pressure, instead opting to force the opposition to consistently execute. He likes to get upfield with his front four and let his linebackers run to the ball.

Connecticut does a good job on third down (37.4 percent conversion rate, 37) and are exceptional in the red zone. On the year Orlando’s squad has held opponents to touchdowns on half of their red zone possessions, a performance good for 22nd best in the country.

The defense is decent against the run, but certainly not great, and rank between 37th and 53rd in the four major categories.

Most of the success stopping the run comes from the linebacker corps. Linebacker Lawrence Wilson leads the team in tackles with 97 (10.8 per game) and also has nine tackles for a loss. Fellow backer Greg Lloyd has notched 80 tackles this year.

Save two specific areas, the pass defense has also struggled. The Huskies allow eight yards per pass attempt (102), 12.2 yards per completion (72), and have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete almost 66 percent of their passes (111). The result is a defensive pass efficiency rating of 139.9 that ranks 96th in the country.

There are, however, two bright spots for the Connecticut pass defense: rushing the passer and forcing interceptions.

The Huskies have 23 sacks on the year, 17 of which have come from defensive linemen. This translates into one sack per 11.3 pass attempts and ranks 17th in the country. Defensive end Lindsay Witten leads the team in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (11), and poses a problem for Irish offensive tackles Sam Young and Paul Duncan.

In the secondary, cornerback Robert McClain and safety Robert Vaughn each have four interceptions and lead a unit that is pretty good with the ball in the air (11 interceptions, 36).

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Husky defense.

Connecticut Defensive Efficiency
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency36.43739.165
Red Zone Efficiency815181.761
Red Zone TD Efficiency502255.568
Connecticut Total Defense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game23.65827.361
Yards329533362574
Yards/Play5.7835.760
TDs26383365
Yards/Game366.168366.871
Connecticut Rushing Defense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards120637145767
Yards/Carry3.8534.261
TDs12481661
Yards/Game13452147.663
Connecticut Passing Defense
StatisticConnecticutConnecticut RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt81027.457
Yards/ Completion12.27212.260
Completion %65.911160.650
Interceptions1136949
TDs12401466
Sacks23301959
Attempts/ Sack11.31718.763
Pass Efficiency139.996132.959
Yards/Game232.176219.265

Summary

Connecticut likes to run the ball on offense and are pretty effective doing it. This opens up the downfield pass, particularly on play-action, and contributes to very good red zone touchdown efficiency.

Defensively, the Huskies are good on third down and also perform well preventing touchdowns in the red zone. Orlando likes to get pressure with the front four which allows for multiple defenders to drop into coverage. The result has been good production getting sacks and forcing interceptions.

In many ways the Huskies are built similarly to the Panthers and Trojans, two teams that dominated the Irish through most of the game. So what must the Irish do to defeat a team that matches up very well?

Offense

  1. Run the freakin’ ball. Connecticut is largely ineffective defending the pass. It will be tempting for head coach Charlie Weis to ride quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate to victory. However, the Huskies can pressure the quarterback with four and the Irish offense has struggled against teams with strong defensive line play. Moreover, the Husky defense is one the country’s best in the red zone, and the Irish have been woeful inside the 20-yard line the past two games. Using the ground game is the answer to both problems. Over the past two weeks Irish running backs have only carried the ball 28 times despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Additionally, running backs Armando Allen (five yards per carry), Robert Hughes (4.7 yards per rush attempt) and Theo Riddick (6.9-yard per carry average) have all been effective for the duration of the season.
  2. Once again, it comes down to the front five. What was critical against USC and Pittsburgh, is also critical in this contest. The offensive line must play well in pass protection to win this game. Running the ball is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for winning. At some point Weis will put the ball in Clausen’s hands and attempt to exploit a very inefficient secondary. Like the Panthers and Trojans, Connecticut features the ability to get pressure with four. The Irish offensive line cannot allow Clausen to be repeatedly harassed as he was in those two contests.
  3. Execute the screen. Last week the screen game reappeared but the execution wasn’t crisp. It, along with draws and non-obvious passing formations, will be needed this week to slow Witten and company and prevent the Husky front four from pinning their ears back.

Defense

  1. Something has to change. Connecticut’s offense thrives when the entire playbook is open. In other words, down and distance is extremely important in this game. If Notre Dame plays well early in the series, it will limit play-calling and maximize the athletic ability of the Irish defense. Poor play on first down will allow Moorhead to mix the run and pass, keeping the Irish off-balance. It is in these situations that the defense has struggled the most, giving up a host of big plays.
  2. Make ’em work for it. The Husky offense has 19 turnovers (eight fumbles, 11 interceptions) and doesn’t take care of the ball particularly well. Endres and Frazer have forced the ball at times. The Irish defense must take advantage of this by forcing consistent execution, i.e. minimize the number of big plays. Connecticut doesn’t have a lot of home run threats, but Easley certainly fits the bill.
  3. Field goals are fine. It was true last week, but is even more critical in this contest. Connecticut scores touchdowns and prevents touchdowns in the red zone. The Irish offense struggles to notch seven on a short field and the defense hasn’t played particularly well inside the 20-yard line. For Notre Dame to have a chance in this game, they must force Connecticut’s kickers to generate points, something they have been fairly incapable of doing this year. This means forgoing the blitz, playing softer coverage, and using the sidelines and back of the end zone as extra defenders on a short field.

Summary

The Irish offense must run the ball effectively and frequently to win this game. Connecticut can pressure the passer and is very good with the ball in the air. Relying solely on a spread passing attack is not a viable option and the Irish offense has struggled against the two best defensive lines they have faced this year.

The Huskies aren’t as talented as Pittsburgh or USC, but they don’t necessarily need to be. The match ups favor Orlando’s unit unless the Irish passing game becomes less predictable. Weis must use the run to force extra defenders in the box and then use play-action to exploit the secondary downfield. Moving the pocket and effectively using screens and draws would also go a long way to keep Connecticut’s defense off-balance.

Defensively, the Irish must play well on first down and prevent the big play. If Moorhead is able to maintain favorable down and distances he will be able to mix the run and pass and use play-action to go downfield. Notre Dame must force obvious passing downs and put the game on the shoulders of the Husky quarterbacks without the threat of play-action.

Saturday is Senior Day, the last home game for Irish seniors like Sam Young, Eric Olsen and Kyle McCarthy. The Irish should be motivated to play. If that isn’t enough, the future of Weis’ career in South Bend and preventing another downward spiral after a promising start are also at stake.

But in the end, the match ups in this game do not favor Notre Dame. Weis hasn’t shown a commitment to the running game or a willingness to minimize the burden of execution on both Clausen and his offensive line. Additionally, first down defense and preventing the big play have hardly been staples of the Irish defense.

Unless something dramatically changes, the visitors have the edge.

Notre Dame 24, Connecticut 27

Furthermore

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