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Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan: Keys to an Irish Win

Saturday marks the midpoint of head coach Brian Kelly’s inaugural season. To date the Irish have posted a 3-3 record against the 4th most difficult AVR strength of  schedule, with two of the losses coming by narrow margins to top 25 teams. Fortunately, the next three games feature three very winnable contests.

The first is against the Western Michigan Broncos. This will be the first contest between the Irish and a Mid-American Conference opponent, but not the first time Notre Dame, or Kelly, has faced the Broncos.

Notre Dame played Western Michigan in back-to-back games in 1919 and 1920, with the Broncos failing to score in two lopsided losing efforts (combined score of 94-0) to immortal Irish head coach Knute Rockne.

Kelly is more recently familiar with Western Michigan—Saturday will be the fifth time he has faced WMU since 2004. Three of the previous four meetings came against current head coach Bill Cubit with Kelly notching a 3-1 record against the Broncos, and a 2-1 mark against Cubit.

Western Michigan, Version 2010

Cubit is in his sixth year at Western Michigan, having compiled a 34-27 (0.557) overall record, 24-15 (0.615) in-conference record, but only a 10-12 (0.455) record in non-conference games. Perhaps his most distinguished accomplishments are two bowl appearances and a nine-win season in 2008, only the third in the history of the program.

Thus far in 2010 the Broncos have wins over Ball State and (FCS) Nicholls State, and losses to Michigan State, Toledo and Idaho. These five teams comprise a somewhat respectable set of opponents (50th ranked AVR strength of schedule), but the three losses came by an average margin of 19 points.

A big part of the three losing efforts is a lack of ball security. The Broncos rank 109th in turnovers per game, putting the ball on the ground on six occasions and throwing seven picks. In fact, if it weren’t for an opportunistic defense, there would likely be more losses. WMU’s defensive unit ranks 4th in turnovers forced per game with nine fumbles and six interceptions.

Offense

Cubit has a background steeped in offensive football. Prior to his head coaching days he was the offensive coordinator at WMU, Stanford, Missouri and Rutgers. Similar to Kelly, he runs a spread offense, but Cubit’s version is far different in design. The Bronco offense aims to take advantage of the fundamental spread concepts, but is less aggressive and much more focused on ball control than Kelly’s scheme.

That doesn’t mean Cubit doesn’t like to throw the ball. The Broncos rank 4th with 43.6 pass attempts per game and only 72nd with 35.2 rush attempts per outing. The production follows the emphasis of the play-calling, WMU ranks 23rd with 274.2 passing yards per game but 102nd in rushing yards.

But effectiveness isn’t the primary problem, efficiency is. Western Michigan’s per-play averages rank in the bottom 20 in the FBS, and—despite it being the emphasis of the offense—the passing game struggles to operate without mistakes. The interceptions are certainly problematic, but the Bronco’s struggle in other areas as well. Starting quarterback Alex Carder has only completed 60.1 percent of his pass attempts and Western Michigan’s front five have allowed three sacks per game.

Carder entered 2010 with seven collegiate pass attempts to his name, and replacing the veteran Tim Hiller has proven difficult. Hiller was the 13th most productive passer in the country last year and left Western Michigan with 11,329 passing yards and 99 passing touchdowns in his career. But what Carder lacks throwing the ball, he makes up for with his feet.

The sophomore quarterback has more rushing yards from scrimmage than any other WMU player, and averages roughly six yards per carry when sacks are excluded. He also has four of the eight Bronco rushing touchdowns.

Carder is joined in the backfield by junior Aaron Winchester, the team’s leading ball carrier. Winchester has plenty of experience in Cubit’s scheme after playing extensively behind Brandon West in 2009, but the experience hasn’t translated into production. Thus far in 2010 he has averaged only 2.8 yards per carry with no rushing touchdowns.

The Bronco offensive line is the most experienced the Irish will face in 2010, featuring four upperclassmen, four returning players with at least 11 starts in 2009, four two-year starters, and more than 115 combined starts. Rather inexplicably, the veteran unit hasn’t played up to expectations and the personnel have been shuffled accordingly.

The receiving corps arguably is the strength of the offense—a deep position unit with five players that started at least 6 games last season. Carder’s primary targets are seniors Jordan White and Juan Nunez. The wide receiver tandem has combined for 71 receptions, 831 yards, and five touchdowns, with Nunez providing the ability to stretch the field (14.5 yards per reception).

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Bronco offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Western Michigan’s 2010 opponents excluding Nicholls State).

2010 Western Michigan Offensive Efficiency
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency39.16438.659
4th down efficiency52.66251.356
Red zone appearances/game5163.563
Red zone efficiency80787642
Red zone TD efficiency64475354
2010 Western Michigan Total Offense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game295723.656
Touchdowns/game3.850355
Plays/game78.8767.561
Yards/game377.461360.360
1st downs/game19.26819.265
Yards/play4.81015.359
2010 Western Michigan Rushing Offense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game35.27234.237
Yards/game103.2102135.349
Yards/attempt2.91053.957
Fumbles688622
Attempts/fumble29.310637.538
TFL allowed/game7.21005.473
1st downs/game6.6867.752
Touchdowns/game1.6631.249
2010 Western Michigan Passing Offense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game43.6433.380
Completions/game26.4920.182
Yards/game274.223225.175
Yards/attempt6.31006.856
Yards/completion10.49811.247
Interceptions791820
Attempts/interception31.16924.329
Sacks allowed/game31042.156
Attempts/sack allowed14.56919.763
1st downs/game11.6289.969
Touchdowns/game2301.670
Completion %60.55760.269
Pass efficiency122.1100124.356

Defense

To say that Western Michigan was a below average defensive football team last year would be an understatement. The Broncos ranked in the bottom half of the FBS in virtually every meaningful metric including 101st in yards per game, 77th in points per game, and 93rd in yards per play.

The poor performance prompted Cubit to make a change at defensive coordinator and hire former Hofstra head coach Dave Cohen. Cohen is an aggressive coach, and the defense plays with the mentality of their leader. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to build on.

Three of the best defenders from the 2009 unit—linebacker Andy Pritchard, end Justin Braska, and tackle Cody Cielenski—are gone. Pritchard was the team leader in tackles, Braska led the unit in tackles for a loss, and Cielenski was first in sacks.

But despite the losses the defensive front has played well. Six of the teams 13 sacks have come from defensive linemen and the front four has also totaled 62 tackles. Tackle Drew Nowak is the only returning starter of the group, but former linebacker-turned-defensive end Deauntay Legrier, Travonte Boles, and Paul Hazel have provided solid production in their early action.

The linebacker corps is led by junior linebacker Mitch Zajac who started a handful of games in 2008 and 2009 and is currently the team leader with 6.6 tackles per game. Alongside Zajac is Dex Jones, a Wisconsin transfer who has good upside but has lacked production early in his career.

The secondary is arguably the strongest personnel group and returns starting safeties Mario Armstrong and Doug Wiggins, and rover (hybrid safety/linebacker) Jamail Berry. Berry led the team in interceptions in 2009 and, along with Armstrong and Wiggins, is one of the top four tacklers on the team this year. Armstrong, Wiggins and Berry are joined by corners Damond Smith and Lewis Toler, the latter of whom leads the team with three interceptions.

The primary strength of the WMU defense, besides the aforementioned ability to force turnovers, is defending the pass. The Broncos rank 29th in completion percentage and 46th in passing yards per game, and have notched a sack every 10.5 pass attempts. Against the run, however, the defense has allowed 4.8 yards per carry (96) and 168 yards per game (82).

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Bronco defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Western Michigan’s 2010 opponents excluding Nicholls State).

2010 Western Michigan Defensive Efficiency
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency36.14437.774
4th down efficiency66.68754.657
Red zone appearances/game3.2503.670
Red zone efficiency815979.770
Red zone TD efficiency502855.177
2010 Western Michigan Total Defense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game27.68026.467
Touchdowns/game3.6793.367
Plays/game62.62465.576
Yards/game363.467369.767
1st downs/game15.61518.771
Yards/play5.8835.664
2010 Western Michigan Rushing Defense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game35.24737.453
Yards/game16882158.860
Yards/attempt4.8964.264
Fumbles93677
Attempts/fumble19.6338.781
TFL/game6605.863
1st downs/game6.8338.163
Touchdowns/game1.4561.668
2010 Western Michigan Passing Defense
StatisticWestern MichiganWestern Michigan RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game27.43528.177
Completions/game15.22417.471
Yards/game195.446210.966
Yards/attempt7.1777.362
Yards/completion12.99411.865
Interceptions639776
Attempts/interception22.82026.189
Sacks/game2.6272.679
Attempts/sack10.52411.790
1st downs/game8339.367
Touchdowns/game1.6771.560
Completion %55.42961.451
Pass efficiency125.967132.461

Adding It All Up

The Bronco offense has struggled this year. The unit doesn’t excel on the ground or through the air, surrenders far too many negative plays, and struggles to protect the football. The receiving corps is deep and has talent, and the offensive line is a veteran, experienced group, but the experience of the personnel hasn’t translated into production.

On the other side of the ball the Bronco defense is very opportunistic and can pressure the passer, but susceptible against the run. Opposing offenses have targeted the ground game against the relatively small front four (261.5-pound average), and this play-calling preference has likely inflated the performance against the pass. The secondary may be the decent, but they are mostly untested.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Continue the turnover trend. Last week was the first no-turnover game for the Irish, and another solid ball protection outing will be needed in this contest. Western Michigan’s defense is opportunistic and turnovers could keep them in the game. The Bronco offense has struggled to sustain drives, but rank 16th in red zone appearances per game largely because the defense continues to give them the ball in good field position. In their five games this year, 10 of 25 red zone appearances have come off turnovers deep in opponents’ territory.
  2. Start fast, but finish too. The Irish offense has gotten off to quick starts the last two games. Five of the first seven possessions have gone for touchdowns. Unfortunately, only one of the final 22 drives crossed the goal line and only four resulted in scores. Quick starts are great, but learning how to finish the game is the missing piece for this offense.
  3. Make it easy on Crist. Kelly has certainly been managing the game with his play-calling. The offense is not entirely installed but this game is one where experimenting and opening up the playbook is a realistic possibility. Western Michigan’s defense struggles against the run and big gains on the ground should open up the Irish offense. With Armando Allen doubtful and Jonas Gray fresh off an injury, Kelly may have to get creative with his play-calling. But using the running game to keep the Broncos off-balance and open up the playbook for quarterback Dayne Crist could go a long way in building his confidence.

Defense

  1. Press the issue. Western Michigan operates with a ball control passing game, i.e. they will nickel-and-dime their way down the field if allowed. The Irish need a pressure-based defense to take away possession throws, attack the passer, force the issue, and get Carder and company out of their comfort zone. Additionally, an aggressive brand of defensive football should continue to force turnovers against an offense that gives them up in spades.
  2. Keep up the good work in the red zone. To date WMU’s recipe for success has been to force turnovers on defense and give their offense good field position. Notre Dame has only allowed three touchdowns on 12 red zone opportunities the last three games, and the trend needs to continue.
  3. Take advantage of opportunities. Six fumbles, seven interceptions, 36 tackles for a loss, and 15 sacks—the Bronco offense hasn’t exactly been mistake-free. Playing aggressive football and forcing the issue should create opportunities for big plays on defense, but the Irish must also capitalize when given the chance.

Prediction

If nothing else, this game will be a good litmus test as to whether Kelly has fundamentally changed the culture in the Irish locker room. Notre Dame will have a decisive talent advantage at virtually every position, but the real question is whether the scoreboard will reflect the mismatch in athleticism on the field.

The majority of Western Michigan’s points have come from turnovers that gave them possession on a short field. Provided the Irish offense builds on last week’s turnover-free performance, this game will be a springboard for the rest of the year. After a tough slate of teams to open the season, Notre Dame goes on a roll.

Notre Dame 38, Western Michigan 13

Furthermore

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