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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

By · November 16th, 2009 · 0 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

Notre Dame couldn’t complete the comeback Saturday, falling 27-22 to Pitttsburgh at Heinz Field. The Irish offense sputtered for three quarters while the defense kept the score close in the early going.

For the second consecutive week, the team looked unprepared and unmotivated until the fourth quarter. This final 15 minute period showed some potential for the Irish, but head coach Charlie Weis hasn’t found the motivational recipe this year or last. Other than the Hawaii Bowl, it is difficult to point to a complete game over the past 23 outings.


Notre Dame ran 67 plays for 349 yards (5.2 yards per play) and 20 first downs. The total yard and first down totals were the worst all season and the per play average wasn’t far from the season-low 4.6-yard per snap value set against Boston College.

Like last week’s game against Navy, Weis heavily favored the pass. Excluding carries by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, only 18 runs were called compared to 42 passes for a 30/70 run/pass split. Accordingly, 81.1 percent of the total yardage came through the air, second only to the Navy game.

The Irish recorded only five big gains for 125 yards (25-yard per play average). These plays accounted for 35.8 percent of the total offense without which Clausen and company averaged only 3.6 yards per play, only higher than their outing with Washington.

The offense managed to convert nearly 43 percent of third down opportunities, but this was largely helped by an explosive fourth quarter. Through the first three quarters only three of 10 tries were successfully converted.

This poor third down efficiency was directly responsible for the lack of red zone production, something that is becoming a recurring theme for the Irish. In contrast to the Navy and Washington games, Notre Dame managed to score touchdowns every time they crossed the Panther 20-yard line. The problem was that this only happened a season-low two times, both late in the game.


Just like the game against Navy, the Irish running game was effective but almost never used.

As a team the Irish gained only 66 yards at a 2.6-yard per carry average, but without Clausen’s two sacks this number climbs to four yards per attempt.

Running backs Armando Allen and Theo Riddick and wide receiver Golden Tate combined for only 18 carries. These 18 rush attempts were good for 75 yards (4.2 yards per attempt) as the running game produced a season-low six first downs. Allen was particularly effective with 77 yards on 14 attempts (5.5 yards per carry).

The sporadic use of the running game allowed Panther defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to keep the Panther secondary back and defend the run with only six or seven players in the box, forcing precious few passing lanes and preventing the vertical passing game that has been the strength of the offense all season.

This irregular use of the ground game was never more evident than the first drive of the third quarter which generated the following play sequence:

  1. Run by Allen for two yards
  2. Run by Allen for nine yards, first down
  3. Pass incomplete to wide receiver Duval Kamara
  4. Run by Allen for 11 yards, first down
  5. Pass to Tate for 22 yards, first down
  6. Pass to wide receiver Michael Floyd for a loss of one yard
  7. Pass to Floyd incomplete
  8. Pass to Floyd incomplete

Three of the first four plays were runs by Allen that averaged 7.3 yards per carry and notched two first downs. Rather inexplicably, Weis abandoned the run as the final four plays of the drive where passes that went for 22 yards (5.5 yards per play) and one first down.


After showing strong improvement in 2008, the offensive line has regressed protecting the quarterback.

Clausen has been repeatedly pressured for most of the season as the Irish front five have surrendered 21 sacks over the last eight games (one sack per 14.8 attempts). But these numbers don’t capture the whole impact of the pass protection problems.

Clausen has also been forced to throw on the run or throw the ball away a host of times this year. The former contributes to inaccuracy while the latter hurts the ability to sustain drives. If Clausen consistently had time, his numbers would undoubtedly be better than they are.

The play-calling doesn’t offer much relief. The screen game reappeared this week (although it wasn’t executed particularly well), but Weis does little to help his offensive line execute. Running the ball is an afterthought, Clausen is almost never tasked with moving the pocket, and the Irish are predictably pass-heavy out of certain personnel groupings and in the shotgun.

Against Pittsburgh Clausen completed 64.3 percent (27 of 42) of his passes for 283 yards, one touchdown and one pick. The interception was arguably the first truly poor decision he has made all year. Clausen averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and 10.5 yards per completion, both near the bottom of the season totals.

Four completions exceeded 20 yards and amassed 27.5 yards per play, good for nearly 39 percent of the passing yardage. Without these plays Clausen averaged only 4.6 yards per attempt and 7.5 yards per completion. The former is a season-low while the latter is second only to Michigan State.

Tate and Floyd both continue to torch opposing secondaries. The former caught nine balls for 113 yards (12.6 yards per reception) and a touchdown while the latter hauled in seven passes for 107 yards (15.3 yards per catch). There is little doubt that the Irish receiving tandem is the best in the country.


For the defense this game was characterized by bipolar production on first down and an inability to stop the run. The defense also failed to force a turnover for the second consecutive week after recording at least one in their first six games.

The Panthers racked up 429 yards of offense and 17 first downs on 59 plays (7.3 yards per play) with nearly even play-calling (32 rushes to 27 passes) and nearly even production on the ground (45 percent of total offense) and through the air (55 percent of total offense). In other words, Pittsburgh was the very definition of balance.

Six plays went for 232 yards, a season-high average of 38.7 yards per explosive gain. These six plays accounted for better than 54 percent of the total offense. The Panthers also scored three times in four red zone opportunities, two of which were touchdowns.

Out of 26 first downs, the Irish defense held Pittsburgh to two or fewer yards 16 times (61.5 percent). However, Notre Dame allowed a mind-boggling 9.7 yards per first down play, allowing 10 plays to exceed five yards including gains of 36, 51, 53 and 50 yards. The balanced Panther offense kept the Irish guessing incorrectly on virtually every first down.

This poor first down defense made the third down production largely irrelevant. While the defense held the Panther offense to only three of 12 on third down, the reality was that Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t need third downs on many of their play series.

Notre Dame currently ranks poorly in multiple categories including 102nd in yards per play (6.2), 93rd in yards per rush attempt (4.6), 72 in rushing yards per game (153.2), 103rd in yards per pass attempt (eight), 114th in yards per completion (13.9), and 85th in passing yards per game (237.3).

With so many returning starters from last year’s squad, it is difficult to understand how the defense has regressed. Shifting coordinators (Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta) and schemes (4-3, 3-4 and a pressure-heavy 4-3) has stunted player development. At some point more change begets more inconsistency.


Against the run, Notre Dame allowed 193 yards on 32 attempts (six yards per carry), the second highest yardage output and per-rush average of the season.

Three runs went for 124 yards and averaged 41.3 yards per attempt, a season-high value. In other words, three rushing attempts gained over 64 percent of the total yardage on the ground. Without these big gains Pittsburgh only averaged 2.4 yards per carry.

On first down the Irish allowed 8.9 yards per rush, only 2.3 yards per carry in the first half but 13.3 yards per rush attempt in the second.

Freshman running back Dion Lewis had an excellent game, gaining 154 yards on 21 attempts (7.2 yards per carry) and scoring a 50-yard touchdown on the ground. Fellow freshman Ray Graham added 57 yards on only three attempts (19 yards per rush), and a touchdown of his own.


For the third time this year, the Irish didn’t notch a sack. Despite frequent blitzing and a scheme predicated on pressuring the passer, the Irish have only recorded one sack per 16.4 passing attempts.

The pass defense on first down was the primary problem. In the first half Pittsburgh averaged 7.3 yards per first down pass attempt. In the second half, however, the Irish allowed 51 yards on only two first down pass attempts.

The Irish defense allowed 236 yards through the air on 15 of 27 passing (55.6 percent). Quarterback Bill Stull averaged 8.7 yards per attempt and 15.7 yards per completion.

Three big gains went for 108 yards (36 yards per pass attempt) and accounted for 45.7 percent of the passing offense. Without these big gains Stull averaged 5.3 yards per attempt and 10.7 yards per completion.

Stull’s favorite target was wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin who caught five passes for 142 yards (28.4 yards per reception) and a touchdown.

Special Teams

Notre Dame’s punting has gone from awful to inept. Punter Eric Maust averaged 24.8 yards on five punts with a long of 35 yards. Maust’s performance included punts of 17, 19 and 20 yards. Weis tried to play a game of field position early in this contest, and it appears this is an effort in futility.

Entering Saturday’s game the punt return unit was largely ineffective. Only 11 returns were attempted for an average of nine yards per return. With 7:16 remaining and the Irish desperately in need of an energy injection, Tate took a 44-yard Dan Hutchins punt 87 yards for a touchdown.


The inability to stop the run combined with an offense that is overly reliant on the pass is never a good combination. The Irish defense ranks 93rd in yards per carry and 72nd in rushing yards per game while the Irish offense ranks 114th in rushing attempts when sacks and Clausen’s carries are excluded.

Pittsburgh made plenty of mistakes that kept the contest close, particularly early in the game. But there is a lot more margin for error for a team with dominant line play.

The Panthers used the now too familiar technique to foil the Irish offensive game plan—get pressure with four and drop seven—as the offense couldn’t sustain execution due to untimely penalties and constant pressure on Clausen. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Weis’ offense has always struggled against teams that can routinely get pressure with their front four.

Save one fourth down play-action pass, the dynamic downfield passing game was also missing as Weis abandoned the running game and failed to force Bennett to bring additional help into the box.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish produced their worst first down defense of the year and couldn’t stop the run. Coupled with the inability of the offense to sustain drives and a terrible punting game, this cost valuable field position for the duration of the first half. Through the first two quarters the Irish suffered through an 11-yard deficit in field position including drives that began on the Notre Dame nine, 13, 10 and 17-yard line.

The Irish defense has been well below average the past two seasons. The offense has looked good at times over the same duration, but much of the success is artificial. Notre Dame doesn’t run the football and isn’t efficient on third down or in the red zone. The problems are both fundamental and numerous, and this team rarely plays with any sense of urgency until the situation is dire.

It is tough to know where the Irish will go from here. Connecticut travels to South Bend next weekend for the final home game before the Irish travel to Stanford after the Thanksgiving holiday. The former isn’t a guaranteed victory and the latter is looking more and more like one of the tougher games of the 2009 season.

It appears as though a second consecutive second-half season slide is a real possibility.



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