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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

By · September 29th, 2010 · 2 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

This one had a different feel. After hard-fought, last-minute losses to Michigan and Michigan State, Notre Dame was systematically dismantled by a physical, well-coached Stanford squad.

The Irish offense never managed to get into a rhythm or established any consistent production, and the defense, which played well against a potent Stanford offense and kept Notre Dame in the game until the fourth quarter, was eventually overrun by a relentless rushing attack.

Ultimately, the game raised more questions than it answered, especially for an Irish offense that has struggled to run the ball in the second straight outing and is beginning to be defined by turnovers and self-inflicted mistakes. Additionally, head coach Brian Kelly seemed to have no answer for Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. For most of the day it was irrelevant what Fangio called—blitzing or dropping eight into coverage was equally effective.

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 Stanford 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, Michigan State.


Despite being a strength entering the game, third down killed the Irish defense and was also problematic for the offense. But the defense did play well inside the 20-yard line against a strong red zone team.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics

[table id=384 /]

The Irish defense entered the game ranked 18th in third down efficiency allowing a 28 percent conversion rate. Stanford entered the contest ranked 10th in third down offense, moving the chains on nearly 55 percent of their third down opportunities. It was strength on strength. Unfortunately, the Cardinal offense came out on top.

The Irish forced 16 third downs on 33 play series (48.5 percent), second this year only to their opening contest against Purdue. The breakdown of Stanford’s performance for these 16 plays:

  • Short yardage—37.5 percent of third down snaps, 83.3 percent conversion rate (5 of 6), averaged one yard to go
  • Third and medium—12.5 percent of third down snaps, 2 of 2 on conversions, averaged five yards to go
  • Third and long—50 percent of third down snaps, converted 4 of 8, averaged 10.3 yards to go

Much of Stanford’s third down success in their first three gains was due to consistent first down gains that resulted in a high percentage of short yardage third downs. Using their strong running game, the Cardinal offense converted these at a clip of over 90 percent.

Because of this, the Irish defense needed to play well on first down, and they did—Stanford gained only 4.2 yards per snap and only 3.8 yards per rush attempt. The Cardinal offense was able to generate a fair amount of short yardage third down opportunities and convert them at a high rate, but it was the long distance situations that were more problematic. Stanford needed more than three yards to move the chains on 10 of their 16 third downs but converted 60 percent of these plays as quarterback Andrew Luck targeted the Irish safeties through the air (more on this below).

On the other side of the ball, it was nearly all bad news. Notre Dame faced 13 third downs on 31 play series (41.9 percent) with the following breakdown:

  • Short yardage—15.4 percent of third down snaps, converted 1 of 2, averaged 1.5 yards to go
  • Third and medium—23.1 percent of third down snaps, converted 2 of 3, averaged 4.7 yards to go
  • Third and long—61.5 percent of third down snaps, 12.5 percent (1 of 8) conversion rate, averaged 11.8 yards to go

In this game, poor first down play was the Achilles’ heel for the Irish offense. Almost 55 percent of first down snaps gained two or fewer yards, quarterback Dayne Crist posted a pedestrian 122.8 passer efficiency, and the Irish offense averaged only 5.5 yards per play—a number that falls sharply to 2.6 yards per snap if four explosive passing gains are excluded.

The erratic first down play resulted in too few short yardage and too many long distance third down situations. Nearly 85 percent of Notre Dame’s third downs needed more than three yards to move the chains and the Irish only converted these opportunities at a rate of 27.3 percent.

The red zone performances followed a similar trend. The Irish offense only reached the red zone once in the meaningful minutes of play—off a muffed Doug Baldwin punt return. The Cardinal offense, however, made seven appearances inside the Irish 20-yard line and ran 21 red zone plays—three more red zone trips and 13 more plays than any other opponent this year.

Despite facing a strong red zone offense with ample opportunity to score, the Irish defense played well. The Cardinal only managed two or fewer yards on 12 of their 21 snaps (57.1 percent), Luck completed only 50 percent of his pass attempts, and Notre Dame held Stanford to five field goals.

Total Offense/Defense

Excluding a few big plays, Notre Dame didn’t do much on offense. The Irish defense limited big gains and held Stanford well below their production averages.

Total Statistics

[table id=385 /]

Notre Dame entered Saturday averaging 451 yards, 23.7 first downs, and five explosive plays per game to go with a 6.2-yard per play average (4.4 yards per play excluding big gains). Stanford held Crist and company to 351 yards, 19 first downs, and 5.2 yards per play—all season lows. The Irish did manage six explosive gains, but averaged a paltry 3.1 yards per play excluding these plays, also a season low.

The trend on the other side of the ball was the same, but in favor of the Irish. Stanford averaged 51.7 points, seven touchdowns, 475.3 yards, and nearly eight explosive gains per game in the first three weeks of the season but were held to 37 points, two touchdowns, 404 yards, and only four big plays. Perhaps most impressive, after averaging nearly 7.1 yards per snap in their first three outings the Cardinal offense managed only 5.3 yards per play against the Irish.

With the third down efficiency trends noted above, it’s no surprise that Stanford was most efficient on third down. The Cardinal offense gained 139 yards at a clip of 4.2 yards per play on first down, 150 at 5.6 on second, but 115 at 7.2 on third.

Open and closed down production followed the same pattern. The Irish allowed only 4.6 yards per play on open downs, likely due to the strong play-calling preference (69.4/30.6 run/pass split). But Notre Dame surrendered 6.6 yards per play on closed downs despite a reverse in play-calling trends (37/63 run/pass split). It seems backwards, but the Irish defenders played poorly when they knew, or at least should have known, what was coming.

Rushing Offense/Defense

The Irish defense performed well against the run, especially considering the opponent. The offense, on the other hand, struggled to get anything going on the ground.

Rushing Statistics

[table id=386 /]

Stanford averaged 242.5 rushing yards, 3.3 rushing touchdowns, and four explosive rushes per game against their first three opponents. Moreover, the production came at 5.8 yards per rush attempt.

The Irish defense held the Cardinal offense well below these averages allowing only 166 yards and one touchdown at a rate of 3.8 yards per carry. Perhaps most impressive was the consistency and ability to contain the big play—through 44 attempts the longest rushing gain by a Stanford player was an 11-yards scramble by Luck.

Open and first down rush defense was particularly strong. Notre Dame allowed only 3.8 yards per rush attempt on first down and surrendered only 3.9 yards per carry on open downs. Both were the lowest totals of the season.

For the Irish offense, the run was an afterthought, at least after the first two drives. Officially, Notre Dame attempted 23 runs for 44 yards (1.9 yards per attempt). The Irish also failed to generate a rushing gain of more than 15 yards for the second straight week and posted a season-low four rushing first downs.

But Kelly’s play-calling didn’t emphasize running the ball. Six of the 23 runs came on the first two drives, the first down run/pass split was 32.3/67.7 and the play-calling preference was nearly the same on open downs (37.5/62.5). The Irish played from behind for a large portion of the game, but it wasn’t out of reach until the fourth quarter and Crist—who was consistently under duress—could have used a few solid gains on the ground to relieve some pressure.

Passing Offense/Defense

Neither quarterback was particularly impressive, but Crist relied heavily on big plays while Luck was a bit more consistent.

Passing Statistics

[table id=387 /]

Similar to the total and rushing offensive categories, the Irish defense also played stout against the pass (except on third down, more on that later). Admittedly, Stanford’s production through the air—238 yards, 12 first downs, four big gains, and 7.4 yards per attempt—was fairly good.

But, prior to Saturday, Luck hadn’t thrown an interception and was third in the country in pass efficiency (192.3 rating). The Irish managed to force two picks (and dropped several others), only allowed one passing touchdown, and held Luck to a paltry 119.7 passer efficiency.

If it weren’t for poor third down pass defense, the performance would have been even better. On first and second down Luck completed 13 of 26 attempts for 143 yards (6.2 yards per attempt) and two interceptions—good for an efficiency rating of 91.4. On third down, however, the trend reversed. Luck connected on six of nine attempts (66.7 percent) for 95 yards (10.6 yards per attempt) and one touchdown. Despite having the advantage in this situation, the Irish defense posted a pass efficiency of 192.

Crist was the opposite. The Irish signal caller completed 62.9 percent (22 of 35) of his first and second down pass attempts for 233 yards (6.3 yards per attempt), one touchdown, and 12 first downs (passer efficiency of 124.4), but only completed 40 percent of his passes for 58 yards at 5.3 yards per attempt (92.1 passer efficiency) on third down.

Drive Offense/Defense

When the game was still in doubt, Stanford outperformed the Irish in virtually every metric.

Drive Statistics*

[table id=388 /]

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

The total, rushing and passing production numbers above include every drive of the game. The reality is that it was the outcome was decided midway through the fourth quarter when linebacker Owen Marecic intercepted Crist’s pass and returned it for a game-clinching score.

As the table above shows, excluding the drives after this play, Stanford performed far better on a per-down basis in virtually every metric—time of possession, three and out’s, average plays, yards and first downs per drive, and available yards gained.

On a total production basis, the comparison is largely the same. Using only meaningful game possessions:

  • Stanford—74 plays, 386 yards, 5.2 yards per play, 23 first downs, gained 67.5 percent of available yardage, 2 touchdowns, 4 field goals, 2 turnovers, 1 punt
  • Notre Dame—56 plays, 200 yards, 3.6 yards per play, 13 first downs, gained 27.1 percent of available yardage, 2 field goals, 3 turnovers (including the turnover on downs), 6 punts

Additionally, Stanford had no three and out’s, four drives of 10 or more plays, and two possessions that consumed more than five minutes.

Recapping the Game

This game was won by Stanford’s defensive front. The play of the Irish offensive line was a potential concern entering the season and the determined, physical Cardinal front seven showed why this unit still has a long way to go. Not much works as a play-caller if you can’t block three/four with five and the box score showed as much.

The offensive drive metrics are—by far—the worst this year, the running game was nonexistent, first down play was erratic and largely ineffective, and Crist was woefully inconsistent.

Until the mounting play disparity and persistent Cardinal rushing attack finally broke the game open, the defense played well enough to win, especially considering the lack of help they received from their offensive counterparts. The Irish played their best first down defense of the year, forced plenty of favorable third down distance situations, and performed well inside the 20-yard line against a very good red zone team.

But poor situational pass defense, particularly on third down, allowed the Cardinal offensive unit to sustain drives, stay on the field, and use a punishing ground game to grind out a win.

At 1-3 and coming off a decisive defeat, the Irish are in desperate need of a win. Fortunately, there are three beatable opponents on the horizon. Unfortunately, the Irish have yet to put together a strong, consistent performance on both sides of the ball. Improvement in multiple position units—namely at the safety position and along the offensive line—is needed to shore up deficiencies, play more complete football, and get back to 0.500.



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