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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

By · October 6th, 2010 · 0 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

Notre Dame notched its second-straight victory over their Catholic archrival, but it wasn’t exactly pretty.

The Irish started fast with three first quarter touchdowns before the offense was beset by inconsistency, scoring a touchdown on only one of the final 13 drives after posting three in the first four. In many ways, Notre Dame was lucky this contest wasn’t closer. Had the defense not been able to force field goals after two first-half turnovers, the halftime score could have been much closer and the momentum in the hands of the home team. Fortunately, the defense played extremely well throughout the duration of the contest.

Head coach Brian Kelly moves to 2-3, with the chance to improve to 0.500 against Pittsburgh at home. But while the defense is improving, the offense appears to be regressing.

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 Boston College 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, Stanford.


Like the other offensive categories, the miscellaneous/efficiency metrics are up and down…although the defense turned in a strong performance.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics

[table id=397 /]

The Irish defense played their best red zone and second-best third down defense of the year. After allowing Stanford to penetrate inside the 20-yard line on seven occasions, the defense didn’t allow Boston College one red zone opportunity. The Irish did surrender the 58-yard touchdown reception to wide receiver Bobby Swigert, but also held the Eagle offense to a field goal after Armando Allen fumbled on the Irish 18-yard line.

Third down play was almost as strong. The Eagles only converted 21.1 percent of their opportunities—second only to Michigan—and, in stark contrast to last year, allowed a first down on only two of 16 (12.5 percent) third down pass attempts.

Perhaps most impressive was the performance on early early downs and preventing the big play. Excellent first down defense forced a third down on a season-high 19 of 29 (65.5 percent) play series, 12 (63.2 percent) of which were third and long and 14 (73.7 percent) of which required more than three yards to move the chains. Additionally, after allowing 15 explosive plays against Michigan and Michigan State, the Irish have allowed only eight in their last two outings, three of which came after the game was decided.

Offensively, the name of the game continues to be inconsistency. For the third time this season (Purdue and Michigan State were the others), the Irish eclipsed a third down efficiency of 41 percent—a respectable conversion rate. But against Michigan and Stanford the same metric was below 31 percent, much too far on the low-end of the spectrum.

Similarly, the red zone offense was firing on all cylinders against the Eagles as the Irish scored four touchdowns and a field goal on five appearances. The 80 percent red zone touchdown efficiency is only the second time this year Notre Dame has scored a touchdown on half or more of their red zone opportunities (Purdue—25 percent, Michigan—33.3 percent, Michigan State—75 percent, Stanford—33.3 percent). Kicker David Ruffer continues to be a potent weapon for the Irish, but the red zone touchdown woes from the past two years still linger.

The red zone touchdown success in this contest it was largely due to the rushing attack. The Irish ground game produced a first down, two touchdowns, and averaged 3.2 yards per carry inside the Eagle 20-yard line, by far the best performance of the year (one first down, one touchdown, and 2.3 yards per carry in the other four games combined).

Total Offense/Defense

From almost every perspective, it was the worst offensive performance of the year, but the best for the defense.

Total Statistics

[table id=398 /]

The Irish set season-low marks in yards, yards per play, and first downs, and posted eight negative plays—second only to the season-opener. The offense was also only able to generate four big plays (one run, three passes), second-lowest only to Michigan State. Excluding these four plays, Notre Dame averaged a season-low 2.9 yards per snap.

But perhaps most troubling are the repetitive turnovers that are as untimely as they are costly. These errors have been largely unforced, have occurred inside the red zone and removed points from the board (Purdue and Michigan State), and/or directly put opponents in scoring position (Michigan, Stanford, and Boston College). Had the Eagles fielded a competent offense, this game may have been much closer.

The defense was on the other end of the spectrum. The Irish allowed only 270 yards at 3.9 yards per snap, 13 first downs, and forced 12 negative plays—all season-best marks. Additionally, the Eagles averaged only 2.3 yards per play excluding the four explosive gains—another season-best—and Boston College’s 13 points were the second lowest of the year.

Rushing Offense/Defense

Offensively, the run worked early, but wasn’t a focus in this game (and hasn’t been since the season-opener). Defensively, the Irish shut down Montel Harris, a running back with 15 games of 100-plus rushing yards in his career.

Rushing Statistics

[table id=399 /]

The Irish attempted 31 rushes against Boston College, the third-highest count of the season. But the overall run/pass play-calling split was 40.8/59.2. In fact, the run play-calling percentage hasn’t been North of 50 since the opening game of the season—42.1 against Michigan, 32.1 against Michigan State, and 33.8 against Stanford.

Part of this is opponent-driven—Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State have weak secondaries—or situational—the Irish played from behind most of the game against Stanford. But the efficiency throwing the ball (see below) suggests that the running game may be needed to take some pressure off quarterback Dayne Crist and force opposing defenses to respect both dimensions of the offense. The two are currently not coupled, and the production appears to be suffering because of it.

This was particularly true against Boston College. The Irish ran the ball on three of the four opening-drive plays, including a superbly timed zone-read that ended in a Crist rushing touchdown. These three runs averaged 14 yards per carry as the Eagle defense appeared completely off-guard. But on the second drive Kelly called four straight passes, the last three of which fell incomplete and forced a punt.

The trend was also evident on a drive-by-drive basis as the play-calling favored the run more on the touchdown drives than those that didn’t cross the goal line. The Irish averaged a 43.5/56.5 run/pass split on their four touchdown drives but 34/66 on the non-touchdown ones. A successful running game requires rhythm, and the play-calling is largely preventing it from being established.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish were flat-out dominant. Boston College managed only five yards on 23 attempts (0.2 yards per carry), only two first downs, and a long gain of 10 yards. Perhaps most impressive, the defense surrendered only 0.9 yards per first down rush attempt and 1.2 yards per carry on open downs.

Five sacks certainly bring the numbers down, but excluding these plays the defense still only allowed 1.6 yards per carry. The rush defense numbers are—by far—season-best values, and came against an experienced offensive line and a running back with a proven track record of production.

Passing Offense/Defense

The downward trend for Crist continued, particularly on first and open downs. The Irish defense put forth its best performance of the year, although a lot of it had to do with the play of the Eagle quarterbacks.

Passing Statistics

[table id=400 /]

After ranking 15th in passer efficiency through the first three games, Crist’s performance has trended downward. He currently rests at 59th in the same metric, after his worst performance of the year.

The yards per attempt and completion, first down, and passer efficiency values are all season-lows, and the 53.3 percent completion rate is second only to the half-game outing against Michigan (52 percent). Some of dip in production is certainly due to better competition, but the surprising aspect of the trend centers around when he is struggling: on first and open downs

To wit, the first and open down production through five games (sacks and yards lost from sacks are counted in the following totals):

  • First down—47 of 91 (51.6 percent), 606 yards, 6.5 yards per attempt, 12.9 yards per completion, 24 first downs, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions and 1 fumble, 6 touchdowns, passer efficiency of 120.6
  • Open down—62 of 112 (55.4 percent), 628 yards, 5.5 yards per attempt, 10.1 yards per completion, 35 first downs, 3 sacks, 4 interceptions and 2 fumbles, 4 touchdowns, passer efficiency of 107.1

Crist’s production on first and open downs, i.e. when running or passing is an equally viable option, has been far from exceptional. The offense has an advantage on these downs because, at least in theory, the entire playbook is open and the opposing defense must respect both the run and pass. Unfortunately, both aren’t being used with great frequency and opposing defenses are able to anticipate the play-call.

The run/pass split on first down is 45.3/54.7, a value largely inflated by a 71/29 outing in the season-opener against Purdue. Remove this game and the split moves to 39.6/60.4. The open down play-calling is similar—the Irish are 45.5/54.5 overall but 41/59 excluding the first game.

What is more puzzling is that this penchant to throw the ball has come despite relative success on the ground. Similar to the breakdown above, the first and open down rushing production for the season:

  • First down—77 attempts, 339 yards, 4.4 yards per attempt, 11 first downs, 3 touchdown, 0 fumbles
  • Open down—96 attempts, 408 yards, 4.3 yards per attempt, 24 first downs, 2 touchdowns, 1 fumble

Averaging better than 4.3 yards per carry in these situations in addition to only one turnover (compared to six above for the passing numbers) suggests more use of the running game. Crist could use the help, second and six (or better) is a good situation for a quarterback with only five starts under his belt.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish recorded season-best marks in completion percentage and pass efficiency, and only missed their best per-attempt and completion numbers from the season-opener.

The only real blemish was the 58-yard touchdown pass. Excluding this play and the last two (meaningless) drives, the Irish defense allowed the following production through the air: 17 of 33 (51.5 percent), 118 yards, 3.6 yards per attempt, 6.9 yards per completion, no touchdowns, one interception, and a pass efficiency of 75.5.

Drive Offense/Defense

The Irish were woefully inconsistent…again. The defense yielded virtually nothing during the meaningful minutes of play.

Drive Statistics*

[table id=401 /]

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

The Irish outperformed their Catholic counterparts in virtually every category—three and out’s, plays, first downs as well as yards per drive, and percentage of available yards gained—but the offensive numbers were fairly low and almost entirely a function of four drives.

In fact, the plays and first downs per drive were below the values posted against Stanford, and the yards per drive and available yards gained percentage aren’t significantly higher. The offensive performance against Boston College appeared better, mostly because Crist wasn’t consistently pressured by a three-man rush, but the production wasn’t markedly different.

Additionally, each possession was all-or-nothing. Separating the 15 meaningful drives into touchdown and non-touchdown possessions:

  • 4 drives—34 plays, 257 yards, 7.6 yards per play, 15 first downs, four touchdowns, 100 percent of available yards gained (by default)
  • 11 drives—39 plays, 83 yards, 2.1 yards per play, 3 first downs, 1 field goal, 3 turnovers, 6 three and out’s, 8.8 percent of available yards gained

It is expected that the touchdown-scoring drives will yield higher values in nearly all of the categories listed, but six three and out’s and failing to register a first down on eight of the other 11 drives really speaks to how hit-or-miss this offense has become. When Crist and company manage to get a first down, they usually move the ball well and notch points. But far too many possessions end in a quick turnover or three and out. If the Irish offense hopes to improve moving forward, consistency is desperately needed.

On the other side of the ball, the defense played exceptionally well. Excluding the last two Eagle drives (which mostly took place against the second-team defense and with the game effectively out of reach) the Irish only allowed 148 yards, 2.6 yards per play, seven first down, and 13 points on 15 possessions.

Perhaps most impressive, the defense only surrendered 6.7 percent of the available yards on these 15 drives. It was obvious that Boston College was handicapped by playing from behind with a mediocre quarterback and a one-dimensional offense, but the performance was as near to a dominant effort as Irish fans have seen in some time.

Recapping the Game

The Irish got the win it desperately needed, but it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.

The Irish offense continues to be plagued by unforced errors. The play-calling has certainly been suspect at times, but there have been far too many unforced turnovers and dropped passes continue to be problematic. This game also featured several examples of miscommunication between Crist and his receivers, something that wasn’t prevalent in the first four games. When things click, the Irish have the talent to be explosive; the trick is stringing plays together and omitting mistakes.

Defensively, the trend is in the opposite direction. After a 2009 campaign that was one of the worst in Notre Dame history, the Irish are substantially improved. Save Michigan State, the defense has (arguably) played well enough to win every game. And this performance has come despite learning a new system and playing for a new play-caller for the fourth time in as many years.

The challenge ahead is pairing the defensive play of the last two weeks with a complete offensive performance. Fortunately, several relatively mediocre opponents are forthcoming on the schedule.



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