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How Good Are the Irish? A Year-End Offensive Statistical Review

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How Good Are the Irish? A Year-End Offensive Statistical Review

With all of the recent and dramatic change in the Irish football program, the 2009 season seems to be mostly forgotten.

There is no bowl game. Sensational quarterback Jimmy Clausen and unanimous All-American and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Golden Tate have left for the NFL. And Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis has been replaced by Brian Kelly.

This seemingly serves as a forward-looking time for Notre Dame football and many are wondering about the direction of the program under its new leadership.

There are several obvious challenges. Can an offensive-minded head coach restore respectability to a woeful defense? Where will the Irish turn without Clausen and Tate and with little depth at quarterback? Will the running game continue to be an afterthought and can the offense solve the red zone problems persistent in the past two seasons? In short, how will Kelly address these looming problems moving forward?

But this does not mean a look back isn’t of value and can’t provide insight into the subtle, fundamental deficiencies plaguing the Irish. As such, this is the first of a two-part, comprehensive statistical review of the 2009 Irish offense and defense. The former will be addressed here, saving the latter for a future installment.

The Benchmarking Discussion

Consistent with previous assessments (including the 2009 offensive and defensive mid-year analyses), the results presented here will be benchmarked to the competition. This approach plays a vital role in appropriately gauging the efficiency and effectiveness of a team’s performance in two primary facets.

Mathematically, examining a team’s production in a vacuum excludes how the competition impacts the results as the largest variable in comparing two teams’ statistical  is the schedule they play.  Performance ratios (or PR’s), while imperfect, provide insight into how the opposition can skew a team’s performance. Here, PR’s are used to adjust the production of the Irish relative to their competition.

But there is also a practical reason.

At the mid-point of the 2008 and 2009 seasons Notre Dame’s offense appeared to be a juggernaut, amassing points and passing yards with seeming ease and ranking with the best in the country in most of the statistical metrics associated with both categories. However, there were fundamental problems that weren’t readily evident until the Irish suffered through second-half season slumps.

In 2008 it was an over-reliance on the big play. While wide receiver Michael Floyd’s injury certainly hurt production, the inability to produce yards without going downfield ultimately spelled disaster.

This season the dependence on the vertical passing game diminished, but a lack of consistency frequently created unfavorable down and distance situations and the pass-heavy play-calling was mostly ineffective inside the red zone. Additionally, the front-end of the schedule featured a slate of weak defensive teams that artificially overstated offensive production. A critical, benchmarked evaluation of the Irish offense revealed these problems long before the losses did.

What Do The Table Values Mean?

The tables below contain 24 statistical values divided into five categories (miscellaneous, offensive efficiency, total offense, rushing offense, and passing offense). This data will be supplemented with more detailed analyses aimed at understanding underlying causes.

For clarity, a detailed description of the table columns can be found here. I highly recommend this refresher in order to understand the data presented below.

Definitions and Disclaimers

The following disclaimers and definitions are pertinent to this analysis:

  • Disclaimer: The numbers presented here were taken from the NCAA statistics website and the Notre Dame football statistics homepage and are accurate to the best of my knowledge as of December 14, 2009.
  • Definition: An explosive—or big—gain is a running play that produces 15 or more yards or a pass play that gains 20 or more yards.
  • Definition: A short yardage situation is any down and distance pair that requires three or fewer yards for a first down.
  • Definition: A medium yardage situation is any down and distance pair that requires greater than three, but fewer than seven, yards for a first down.
  • Definition: A long yardage situation is any down and distance pair that requires seven or more yards for a first down.

Additionally, for reference purposes, the following are links to the statistical recaps for each 2009 Irish opponent: Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Washington, USC, Boston College, Washington State, Navy, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Stanford.

Possession, Discipline and Turnovers

Ball control was solid, penalties were untimely, and turnover margin is respectable despite a second-half season slide.

Miscellaneous
StatisticNotre DameNotre Dame RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Time of Possession31:551629:4364
Penalty Yards/Game55.57149.149
Turnover margin531-165

The Irish faced a time of possession deficit only three times (Washington, Navy, and Stanford) during the 2009 season en route to averaging 31:55 per game, good for 16th in the country. The possession was spread fairly evenly in the four quarters of play as Notre Dame averaged more than eight minutes of possession in all but the fourth quarter.

Excluding overtime periods the offense had 140 drives that averaged 2.1 first downs, 6.1 plays, and 38 yards per drive. This production was good for an average time of possession of 2:44 per drive.

Many drives were fairly quick as only 27 (19.3 percent) exceeded 10 plays and only 15 (10.7 percent) eclipsed the five-minute mark. However, to the credit of Clausen and company, only 27 drives (19.3 percent) were three plays and punt.

For the second straight year Weis’ unit showed a significant lack of discipline, ranking in the bottom half of the country in penalty yards. In 2009, however, the number of penalties wasn’t as critical as their timing. Holding and personal fouls, in particular, frequently took away yards, removed points from the scoreboard, and extended opposing team’s drives.

The Navy game aside, protecting the ball was a strong point of the 2009 season as the offense surrendered five turnovers through the first six games and nine in the last six. Those 14 turnovers are good for 13th best in the country. The passing game was particularly good protecting the ball with one interception per 89.4 attempts.

The takeaways aren’t as positive. The Irish rank 76th with only 19 gained turnovers, but struggled most down the stretch as only four turnovers were generated in the final five games.

Not Terribly Efficient

Not much changed from the mid-year point: the kicking game is strong but third down and scoring touchdowns in the red zone continue to be problematic.

Offensive Efficiency
StatisticNotre DameNotre Dame RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average RankPR
3rd Down Efficiency415038.9620.05
Red Zone Efficiency844683.4680
Red Zone TD Efficiency566856.659-0.01

No offense can be considered great without consistently efficient play. The Irish offense was able to move the ball well (see below), and with a good per-play average. However, the third down and scoring efficiencies were pedestrian against average defensive teams.

Notre Dame had 402 play series of which 38.8 percent contained a third down. These opportunities were converted at a rate of 41 percent, good for 61st in the country. The third down inefficiency is mostly due to inconsistent first down offense.

The offense averaged seven yards per first down play, a very respectable number. But it was largely hit or miss as big plays skewed this value (see a more detailed discussion of big plays below).

Better than 50 percent of first down snaps went for more than five yards including 34 out of 73 explosive gains (46.6 percent). However, 36.6 percent of first down plays gained two or fewer yards and excluding big plays the Irish averaged only 4.5 yards per first down snap.

The result is long distances on third down. The Irish offense averaged 6.9 yards to go on third down in addition to needing more than three yards for a conversion on 69.2 percent of third down tries. The third down efficiency in these situations was a paltry 33.3 percent compared to a 60.4 percent conversion rate when faced with short yardage.

While many play series didn’t require a third down, the Irish struggled when faced with one. This was mostly due to the absence of a methodical running game. Sustaining drives with big passing plays is a high rish, low probability modus operandi.

The red zone offense was also problematic. While the field goal kicking was very respectable, the Irish only scored touchdowns 56 percent of the time they entered the red zone. As has been discussed ad nauseum, the offense bogged down inside the 20-yard line where a spread passing game is least effective (more details on the red zone woes forthcoming in a future article).

Let’s Talk Totals

Still more than respectable, but red zone touchdown efficiency hurts the scoring and a tougher slate of defensive teams has dimmed the overall picture.

Total Offense
StatisticNotre DameNotre Dame RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average RankPR
Points/Game30.13825.5590.17
Yards5421134545640.19
Yards/Play6.4155.6690.13
TDs444537570.17
Yards/Game451.89378.7660.19

Save scoring, the total offensive picture is very good and stacks up very similarly to the mid-year numbers.

The Irish rank 15th or better in yards, yards per play, and yards per game, mostly due to one of the country’s most productive passing offenses. The scoring, however, doesn’t match the ability to move the ball. Many times—most notably against Washington and Navy—the Irish were able to churn out yards with ease only to fail to score a touchdown inside the 20-yard line. The relatively low per-game point total is a direct correlation to the poor red zone efficiency.

Excluding overtime periods the Irish had 140 drives and scored on 59 of them (42.1 percent). Of these 59 scores, 20 occurred outside of the red zone (33.9 percent), as 15 touchdowns and 5 field goals came from beyond the 20-yard line. The 15 non-red zone touchdowns account for more than 36 percent of the Irish touchdowns. Expressed differently, 29 percent of drives (41 of 140) resulted in touchdowns but only 18.6 percent (26 of 140) of drives ended with a red zone touchdown.

With the exception of Navy and Pittsburgh, the first half belonged to the Irish. Excluding these two contests the offense averaged almost a touchdown more than their counterparts through two quarters of play.

The second quarter was the most productive as the offense notched 119 of 361 total points (33 percent). The third quarter was quite the opposite as the Irish managed only 47 points (13 percent).

As a whole, the numbers in the last seven games are lower than those in the first five as almost every statistic and ranking are down from the mid-year point. This is mostly due to tougher defensive opposition which has not only lowered the values and rankings, but the PR values as well. It seems the Irish offense was good, but certainly not as prolific as the early season results suggested.

Was Running The Ball Really That Bad?

Efficiency and effectiveness were understated by the way the run was used.

Rushing Offense
StatisticNotre DameNotre Dame RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average RankPR
Yards153986171253-0.1
Yards/Carry3.8764.160-0.05
TDs13971755-0.23
Yards/Game128.385142.754-0.1

Notre Dame ranks 76th or worse in all four major rushing categories. Based on the data above, the effectiveness (yards, touchdowns and yards per game) is equally as low as the efficiency (yards per carry). Moreover, the Irish ground game wasn’t as productive as the opposing defenses typically allowed as every PR is less than zero.

A cursory glance at these numbers shows that the 2009 Irish ground game isn’t much better than last year’s version. A more critical examination leads to a different conclusion.

Officially, Notre Dame attempted 401 rushes for 1,539 yards, a paltry 3.8 yard per carry average. Perhaps more disheartening is the long gain of the year, a 37-yard scamper by running back Robert Hughes.

But removing Clausen’s attempts (sacks, scrambles, sneaks and a handful of designed read option plays) increases the average to 4.8 yards per carry. Additionally, the top four players in rushing yards—running backs Armando Allen, Theo Riddick, Hughes, and Tate—gained 1,489 yards on 284 carries and averaged a solid 5.2 yards per carry. In other words, had Clausen been better protected (see below), the rushing efficiency would be much better.

But there were also other factors that impacted the effectiveness and efficiency of the running game: frequency and situational use.

Notre Dame ranks 90th in rushing attempts with a run/pass split of 401 to 447—52.7 percent in favor of the pass. Excluding Clausen’s carries the offensive rushing attempt rank falls to 115th and the run/pass split decidedly favors the pass as nearly 60 percent of plays were called passes. With so few opportunities, the per-game rushing yards are understandably low.

Additionally, the running game was most heavily used in short yardage situations which decreased the per-attempt average.

Counting sacks as passes, 44.8 percent of first down plays were runs that gained 803 yards at a clip of 4.5 yards per attempt. The 803 yards is more than 52 percent of the total rushing production and the per-carry average is significantly (18.4 percent) above the 3.8-yard team average. On first down, i.e. when there is a relatively equal threat of running and passing, the running game was both effective and efficient.

But in short yardage situations, the running game was used much more frequently with (expected) lower production. Excluding first down, Weis called 195 runs out of 447 snaps (43.6 percent). Of these 447 plays, 24.4 percent were short yardage situations where runs were attempted 68.8 percent of the time, a disproportionately higher amount than any other down and distance situation.

The offensive line and backs delivered, converting nearly 71 percent of these runs into first downs compared to a 55.9 percent conversion rate in the air. But the per-carry average is obviously lower and skews the overall efficiency.

In summary, considering the frequency and method in which it was used, Notre Dame’s running game was both efficient and effective.

Is This What A Weisian Offense Looks Like?

Play-calling made protection difficult and partially limited an otherwise exceptional air attack.

Passing Offense
StatisticNotre DameNotre Dame RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average RankPR
Yards/ Attempt8.7107.3710.18
Yards/ Completion12.93912.1620.07
Completion %67.3760.5760.11
Interceptions51010690.49
TDs30818580.68
Sacks256827500.06
Attempts/ Sack17.94916.3560.09
Pass Efficiency160.26132720.21
Yards/Game323.55236.1800.37

With very few exceptions, the Irish passing game was phenomenal. Notre Dame ranks 10th or better in every category except yards per completion and the two pass protection metrics.

The former is a result of more conservative play by Clausen. The maturation process came full circle in 2009 as passes to the outlet receivers were preferred to ill-advised downfield throws.

Clausen and company averaged 323.5 yards per game through the air at a clip of 8.7 yards per pass attempt. The junior signal caller finished his career by completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,722 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. Clausen eclipsed the 300 yard passing mark in eight games, had his highest output against Navy (452 yards), and threw a season-high five touchdown passes in the finale against Stanford.

His favorite targets were Floyd and Tate. The former averaged 113.6 receiving yards per game and 18.1 yards per reception. The latter set record after record, catching 93 passes for 1,496 yards—good for a 16.1-yard per-reception average. The Irish receiving tandem also combined for 24 touchdowns.

The pass offense was most dangerous on first down. Counting sacks as pass attempts, the Irish averaged a gaudy 9.2 yards per attempt on 222 plays. Additionally, 59 percent of first down passes went for five or more yards compared to only 32 percent of plays gaining two or fewer yards. It is no coincidence that the down when the run/pass threat was almost even was also the down with the greatest production through the air.

Perhaps most impressive was the pass efficiency. On average, Notre Dame was more efficient than opposing defenses with a mean PR of 0.25 in the “efficiency categories” (yards per attempt, completion percentage, interceptions, and pass efficiency). The ability to operate at this efficiency level is directly responsible for the ball control advantage.

About the only deficiencies were a puzzling regression in pass protection from a very respectable 2008 campaign and poor third down play.

Much of this can be attributed to play-calling, the burden of execution on the offensive line was very difficult as the Irish frequently attempted to protect with five out of the shotgun and with very little pocket diversity, e.g. play-action, roll-out’s and/or bootlegs.

These factors also contributed to poor third down passing where the offense needed an average of 8.5 yards for a conversion. In these situations the Irish only managed to move the chains 34.7 percent of the time. But even on short yardage third downs the Irish struggled to gain first downs throwing the ball (three of nine).

And this is what makes this performance even more impressive . The Irish pass offense was exceptionally efficient despite throwing the ball with great frequency, without a solid running presence, and with fairly predictable tendencies.

It’s Always About The Big One

The 2008 Irish offense was far too reliant on the big play. This was not a problem in 2009 as a dramatically more efficient passing attack emerged. The 2009 unit was certainly explosive, but was efficient even without the vertical passing game.

Notre Dame ran 848 plays of which 73 (8.6 percent) were big gains. These 73 plays gained 2,183 yards (29.9 yard per play average) and accounted for 40.3 percent of the total offense. Excluding the explosive gains, the Irish averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per play, a substantial increase over the 3.3-yard per play average last season. On average, the Irish offense generated 6.1 plays and 181.9 yards per game in explosive gains.

As expected, most of the big play production occurred on first and second down. The Irish notched 34 explosive gains on first down and 29 on second. The average per explosive play, however, was considerably more on first down—33.7 yards compared to 27.3 yards per play on second down.

Running

The running game’s big play production wasn’t as prolific as that through the air as only 34.2 percent of the 73 explosive gains came on the ground.

The Irish averaged 2.1 big runs and 41.2 explosive rushing yards per game. All in all, 32.1 percent of the ground production came on big runs which averaged 19.8 yards. Without these runs the offense gained only 2.8 yards per carry, a value that is not markedly better than last year, but was undoubtedly impacted by the heavy use of the run in short yardage situations.

Most of the big runs occurred on second down where nearly 44.7 percent of the explosive rushing yards came on 12 plays (18.4 yards per attempt).

Passing

Clausen and company notched 48 big gains through the air, averaging 35.2 yards per completion and good for 43.5 percent of the total passing production. Without these plays the Irish passing offense still managed 5.5 yards per attempt and 8.7 yards per completion.

As noted above, the majority of these pass plays occurred on first down as 25 big completions (52.1 percent) accounted for 953 yards (56.4 percent), a 38.1-yard per play average. All three values were, by far, well above the other down averages. Excluding these big gains on first down, however, cuts the average gain by more than 40 percent and was largely responsible for the inconsistent first down production referenced above.

So What Was The Offensive Game Plan?

It seems Weis’ high-level game plan was consistent throughout the year: score early and often to counter an inept defensive unit. The former aimed at forcing opposing offenses to become one-dimensional while the latter was necessary to offset the 25.9 points per game surrendered by the Irish defense.

As the running game lacked an explosive element, the preferred method of accomplishing this was a pass-heavy play-calling approach and virtually every offensive statistic supports this interpretation.

Notre Dame ranked 20th in pass attempts, rarely had long drives, and gained over 71 percent of their yards through the air. The most productive Irish players were integral to the passing game (Clausen, Floyd, Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph) and with such efficient play from Clausen, ball control wasn’t an issue and the running game wasn’t needed to chew the clock. Moreover, the best PR values are all directly or indirectly related to throwing the ball.

The run was mostly used to keep defenses honest (fairly even run/pass split on first down) and convert short yardage situations (nearly 69 percent of short yardage plays were runs), both of which contributed to artificially underestimate its effectiveness.

This offensive approach is only problematic on third down and in the red zone, the two fundamental deficiencies keeping an otherwise strong unit from being truly great.

Erratic first down play—mostly in the passing game—frequently led to long down and distances and the spread passing scheme struggled to produce touchdowns inside the red zone. Additionally, the lack of diversity and play-calling predictability led to protection problems.

Better—read, more balanced—use of the running game would have likely produced more consistent first down gains and created more favorable down and distances. More than 57 percent of second downs and almost 43 percent of third downs were long distance situations. Given the efficiency of the Irish backs (and Tate), this seemed like viable option.

But these problems aside, the offense was certainly good enough to win 10 or 11 games. With a more respectable defensive unit the Irish could have exhibited more balance and been even more productive.

Perhaps most frightening is what lies ahead. As Clausen and Tate depart for the NFL, not only will Kelly have to replace one of the finest quarterbacks and wide receivers in the illustrious history of Notre Dame, he will also have to replace 70.1 percent of the total yardage output and 76.7 percent of the Irish touchdown production.

Furthermore

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