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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

By · September 21st, 2010 · 0 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Another week, another close, tough loss for the Irish. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio improved to 3-1 against Notre Dame, and the Spartans have won 10 of the last 14 in the series. If it feels like these close, late-game losses are a trend, it’s because they are.

Since opening the 2008 season Notre Dame has played 28 games. The average margin of victory/defeat in these contests is 11.1 points with 18 games (64.3 percent) decided by 10 points or less, 17 decided by seven points or less, and seven decided by three points or less. The Irish haven’t fared particularly well in these close encounters.

During this span the Irish are 7-11 (0.389) in games decided by two scores, 6-11 (0.353) in games decided by a touchdown, and 2-5 (0.286) in games decided by a field goal. Notre Dame’s mounting reputation as a team that can’t close out opponents seems to be accurate. The closer the game, the less likely the Irish are to win it.

The average score for these contests is 27.6-27.9. In other words, the close games of the past three seasons have been relatively high scoring. The offense has typically scored enough points to win, but the performance hasn’t been matched on the other side of the ball.

So what were the determining factors in the close loss this week?

Diving Into the Numbers

Per the norm, five tables—(1) miscellaneous/efficiency as well as (2) total, (3) rushing, (4) passing, and (5) drive offense/defense—with pertinent statistics for the game against the Spartans are shown below. This data is supplemented with more detailed numbers/analyses aimed at identifying the primary drivers for the performance in each category.

For a historical perspective and reference purposes, the following are links to the statistical recaps of the 2010 opponents: Michigan.


Penalties were a problem for the first time all year, third down defense slipped a bit (but was still good), red zone offense improved while the defense continues to struggle inside the 20-yard line.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics

[table id=379 /]

After committing only six penalties for 44 yards in the first two home games, the Irish were flagged seven times for 70 yards against Michigan State. A hostile road crowd certainly contributed to the increase, but it wasn’t the number of penalties or penalty yards that was the primary problem, it was the timing (more on this below).

Offensively, the Irish played well on third down converting nearly 42 percent of tries, the best single-game mark of the season. Much of the success can be attributed to good situational characteristics—five of 12 third downs were short yardage situations.

Third down continues to be a strength for the Irish defense (18th ranking, 28 percent third down efficiency), with much of the success due to excellent situational play. Of the 50 third down snaps the defense has faced this year, only one-third have come in short yardage situations.

Unfortunately, the Irish don’t play well enough early in play series to force many third downs (7.9 yards per first down snap against the Spartans). Currently, Notre Dame ranks 63rd in third downs per play, a problem exacerbated by being on the field for way too many snaps (112th in plays per game).

After only scoring two touchdowns in seven red zone opportunities the first two games, the Irish notched three in four trips against Michigan State. The improvement is largely the result of quarterback Dayne Crist’s progression. In the red zone against Purdue and Michigan Crist completed seven of 13 pass attempts (53.8 percent) for one touchdown (passer efficiency of 110.9). Against the Spartans Crist didn’t miss a throw and notched three scores (passer efficiency of 358.5).

While the offense improved in the red zone, the defense regressed. After allowing two touchdowns on four red zone appearances against Purdue and Michigan, the defense allowed three touchdowns on four trips to the Spartans with the only non-scoring red zone drive ending in a well-timed Zeke Motta interception.

Total Offense/Defense

Big play offense/defense reached new lows, but the offense flourished while the defense suffered. Turnovers are becoming a big problem. The defensive adjustments from the Michigan game were missing.

Total Statistics

[table id=380 /]

While the Irish offense posted only two big gains for 48 yards—the lowest totals since 2007—it didn’t slow them down. The offense averaged a pedestrian 5.7 yards per play, the lowest since posting 4.6 yards per snap against Boston College in 2009, but managed to produce yards in methodical fashion. The 5.2-yard per play average excluding big gains is the highest total in the last two years with one exception (Navy last season).

Defensively, the big plays were far more damaging. Poor first down and big play defense were problematic last week, and the performance against the Wolverines and Spartans is the worst two-game stretch in both areas dating back to 2008.

The Irish allowed nine explosive gains (five runs, four passes) for 221 yards (24.6 yards per play). The nine big plays were good for 46.3 percent of Michigan State’s offense and accounted for four scores. These big play touchdowns have been critical in the early going as seven of the 10 touchdowns allowed by Notre Dame have come via explosive gains. As with Michigan, most of the big play damage occurred on first down where six of Michigan State’s explosive gains (four runs, two passes) averaged 25.3 yards and accounted for more than 55 percent of first down production.

The inability to protect the ball and force turnovers has also become a problem. The defense ranks 96th in turnovers gained per game with three in as many contests. But while the Irish defense has historically struggled to generate turnovers, the offense, at least last year, exhibited good ball security. This year is another matter entirely. Notre Dame has committed seven turnovers and currently ranks 84th in turnovers lost per game. Not protecting the ball or being able to generate turnovers is bad enough, but coupling both together is particularly damaging (-4 turnover margin, 105th in the country).

The last two games, however, have been especially bad. The Irish are -5 in turnover margin against Michigan and Michigan State. Given that both games were close losses, better ball protection could have certainly tipped the scales in the other direction.

Against Michigan, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made excellent halftime adjustments. Against Michigan State, Diaco was bested by offensive coordinator Don Treadwell. The first and second half comparison:

  • First half: 41 plays, 214 yards, 5.2 yards per play, 7 points
  • Second half: 32 plays, 238 yards, 7.4 yards per play, 21 points

And the Spartan second half offensive improvement came via the run and pass. Through the first two quarters of play Michigan State attempted 20 rushes for 98 yards (4.9 yards per attempt). In the second half Michigan State ran the ball 17 times for 122 yards (7.2 yards per carry). Similarly, quarterback Kirk Cousins completed only 52.4 percent of his first half passes at a rate of 5.5 yards per attempt (105 passer efficiency). In the second half, however, Cousins averaged 7.7 yards per attempt and completed all 12 of his passes (217.8 passer efficiency).

Rushing Offense/Defense

The ground production was decidedly in favor of the Spartans.

Rushing Statistics

[table id=381 /]

Offensively, the run was a bit of an afterthought in this game. Given the strengths and weaknesses of the Spartan defense, this was (at least partially) expected. After calling at least 32 runs in the first two outings, Kelly only attempted 26 against Michigan State. The first down play-calling was even more indicative of the offensive intent. Against Purdue 72 percent of first down snaps were runs, against Michigan 43.2 percent (despite playing from behind most of the game), but against Michigan State only 28.2 percent.

The 92 yards and 3.5-yard per carry average are nothing to write home about, but there were several contributing factors—Crist had multiple scrambles and there were no big gains. Armando Allen managed 5.5 yards per carry and the Irish allowed a season-low two negative rushing plays, but the inconsistency from last week remained. Excluding sacks, almost half of the Irish rush attempts gained two or fewer yards (44 percent).

Defensively, the news is almost all bad.

The Irish didn’t allow a one-man show like Denard Robinson, but Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell certainly did their share of damage. The two Spartan backs combined for 204 yards and two touchdowns (both on runs of more than 15 yards) on only 31 carries (6.6-yard average). Additionally, Baker and Bell combined for 10 rushing first downs and five big rushing gains.

Not surprisingly, the Spartan running game was most potent on first down when Treadwell aimed to establish the run and keep the Irish defense off-balance. Treadwell called 21 first down runs that went for 153 yards (7.3 yards per play), six first downs, and two explosive touchdowns. Michigan State also owned the third quarter (11 rushes, 106 yards, 9.6 yards per rush) before the Irish defense rallied to allow only 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Passing Offense/Defense

Considering the situation, Crist is playing very well. On defense, the focus on the run made throwing the ball pretty easy sledding.

Passing Statistics

[table id=382 /]

Despite a new play-caller, new offensive coaching staff (save one holdover coaching a new position), new offense, and only three career starts, Crist is looking pretty good.

Through three games against BCS conference competition the first-year starter is 13th in total passing  yards, 15th in passing yards per game, 38th in yards per attempt, 15th in touchdowns, and 31st in pass efficiency. There is certainly room for improvement, but given the change on offense and lack of game experience, Crist has performed very well.

This game was no exception. It was obvious Kelly wanted to attack the Spartan secondary (32/68 run/pass split) and Crist delivered, particularly in the red zone and in the opening quarters of each half. In the first and third quarters the Irish signal caller completed 23 of 32 passes (71.9 percent) for 259 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions (172.4 passer efficiency).

About the only situation where Crist struggled was third down as only three of nine throws successfully moved the chains. The junior seems to have a penchant for prematurely offloading the ball to a “comfortable” target rather than continuing his progression and throwing beyond the marker. He showed better patience in this game, taking what the defense gave him and not forcing throws downfield, but, as with the rest of the offense, the challenge for Crist is four quarters of consistent execution.

While the Irish offense is making progress throwing the ball, the pass defense appears to be regressing. Against Purdue the Irish posted a 108.3 pass efficiency. Against Michigan the defense also performed well (119.5 pass efficiency). But against the Spartans things got rather ugly.

Notre Dame allowed 274 passing yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 34 passing (70.6 percent), good for a pass efficiency of 161.5. Even excluding the final play of the game, Cousins completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns (pass efficiency of 146). Thus is the luxury of having a strong running game.

Despite these negatives, there were some positives. On four red zone pass attempts the Irish forced an incompletion, recorded a sack, and generated an interception. Additionally, the Irish continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks, notching one sack every 8.5 pass attempts against the Spartans and ranking 26th in sacks and 29th in sacks per game.

Drive Offense/Defense

Hit and miss is the name of the game, err drive.

Drive Statistics*

[table id=383 /]

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

A quick glance at the numbers shows why the game was so close. Notre Dame had better field position and fewer three and outs, but plays, first downs, yards per drive, and available yards are nearly even. This means the game was largely situational and/or inconsistent.

Excluding the last play of the first drive (taking a knee before halftime) and the final drive of the second half (only 33 seconds left in regulation), a summary of the Irish offensive drives:

  • Drives 1-2: 14 plays, 41 yards, 2.9 yards per play, 3 first downs, 2 punts
  • Drives 3-4: 22 plays, 149 yards, 6.8 yards per play, 9 first downs, 1 touchdown and 1 fumble
  • Drives 5-6: 4 plays, 0 yards, one interception, 1 punt
  • Drives 8-10: 22 plays, 203 yards, 9.3 yards per play, 13 first downs, 3 touchdowns
  • Drives 11-13: 13 plays, 44 yards, 3.4 yards per play, 2 first downs, a fumble and 2 punts

When Crist and company get going, they really get going. But the pockets of success are sporadic and the failed drives are mostly caused by self-inflicted mistakes. This was no more evident than in the first half. A summary of the first half drives:

  • ´╗┐Opening drive, Irish moving the ball well, dead ball personal foul penalty results in third and 22
  • Drive two, Kelly is set to go for it on fourth and five at the Michigan State 34-yard line until a delay of game penalty forces a punt
  • Drive three, touchdown
  • Drive four, a touchdown appears like a foregone conclusion until wide receiver Michael Floyd fumbles the ball in the Spartan red zone
  • Drive five doesn’t even get started, Crist throws a pick on the first play
  • Drive six, three straight incomplete passes

Given the red zone efficiency of the Irish offense in this contest, without the poorly timed first half turnovers and penalties, Notre Dame could have easily scored 21 more points.

The defense is a similar story, albeit with half-to-half inconsistency rather than drive-to-drive.

First half:

  • 4 drives, 18 plays, 43 yards, 2.4 yards per play, 3 first downs, 4 punts
  • 2 drives, 23 plays, 166 yards, 7.2 yards per play, 10 first downs, a touchdown and an interception for a touchback

Second half:

  • 4 drives, 15 plays, 30 yards, 2 yards per play, 2 first downs, 4 punts
  • 3 drives, 17 plays, 203 yards, 11.9 yards per play, 10 first downs, 3 touchdowns

Expressed differently, five of the 13 (38.5 percent) Spartan drives accounted for 54.8 percent of plays, over 83 percent of yards, 80 percent of first downs, and all four regulation touchdowns.

Bringing It All Together

Truth be told, Notre Dame is as close to 3-0 as 1-2. In many ways this team feels like last year’s squad—the offense is good enough to keep them in any game but the defense allows plenty of points. The result is a lot of close contests where some luck is needed to secure a victory. Some will be wins, some losses.

Offensively, the Irish need consistency, both on a play-by-play and drive-by-drive basis. Nearly half (47 percent) of snaps have generated two or fewer yards while nearly a third of meaningful drives have failed to net a first down, resulted in a turnover, and/or been three plays and punt. The offense must minimize unforced errors (e.g. penalties and turnovers) to extend drives and capitalize on scoring opportunities.

Defensively, the name of the game is minimizing big gains and forcing third down. The last two games the Irish defense has surrendered 15 explosive plays for 445 yards (29.7 yards per play) and six touchdowns. Additionally, poor first down performances (7.5 yards per play the last two games) have prevented the defense from capitalizing on excellent third down play.

Unfortunately, at least for the defense, things might not change in the near future. The Spartans laid out the blueprint for attacking the Irish and the next three opponents have the scheme and offensive personnel capable of executing it.

The friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium and return of Jamoris Slaughter should help, and hopefully the offense can limit mistakes and consistently execute.



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