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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

By · October 13th, 2010 · 0 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

Another week, another opportunity to extend an early lead and come away with a decisive victory. Much like the season-opener against Purdue, Notre Dame had Pittsburgh on the ropes with a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter, only to let the Panthers back in the game.

This team hasn’t learned how to close out a game. The defense, for the most part, seems up to the challenge. Save very few occasions, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s unit has played stout football in critical situations.

The offense is another story entirely. For the second straight week the Irish opened with a quick start and early lead only to go dormant for most of the second half. If it weren’t for back-to-back stands at the end of the game by the defense, this easily could have been a loss.

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 Pittsburgh 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, Boston College.


Two ill-timed penalties made a huge difference. Third down play was nonexistent for the Irish offense except for two drives. The defense won the game in critical situations—on third down and in the red zone.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics

[table id=425 /]

Overall, Notre Dame has been a relatively disciplined team—the Irish rank 11th in penalties per game and 27th in penalty yards per game. But Saturday it wasn’t the number of penalties or yards assessed that were costly, it was the two plays they took away.

The first was a hold on center Braxston Cave (with seven players in protection) that nullified a downfield throw from quarterback Dayne Crist to wide receiver Michael Floyd. The second was an offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Theo Riddick that brought back another Crist-Floyd connection, this time a 44-yard touchdown.

Put those two plays back in the box score and this game looks decidedly different.

But it wasn’t just penalties that hurt the Irish offense. Third down was also problematic. Notre Dame only converted four of 12 third down opportunities, but three came on one drive and all four came on two possessions.

The Irish were perfect on third down during the second and third drives of the game, mostly because the distances were manageable. Notre Dame faced four third downs on these two possessions, needing an average of 3.5 yards to move the chains. In contrast, the average third down distance on the other drives was over 10 yards.

On the other side of the ball, the key to this game was red zone and third down defense.

The Irish currently rank 46th in red zone appearances per game, but 9th in red zone touchdown efficiency. The recent performance is especially strong—against Stanford, Boston College, and Pittsburgh Notre Dame has allowed only three red zone touchdowns on 12 opportunities. Most of the defensive numbers in this game aren’t spectacular, but allowing only one touchdown on four red zone trips minimized the impact of Pitt’s production.

Third down defense has also been a strength in recent outings. Boston College and Pitt were only able to convert nine of 34 third down opportunities (26.5 percent), and only 17.9 percent of those on which a pass was attempted.

But while the Irish played well on third down, early down defense was poor. The Irish forced a season-low 15 third downs against Pitt, part of the reason the Panther offense was able to sustain drives (more on this below in the drive section).

Total Offense/Defense

No turnovers! The second quarter production trend was reversed and first down offense was improved relative to recent games, but more big plays are needed. Defensively, the numbers are very average.

Total Statistics

[table id=426 /]

The yards and yards per play numbers for the offense are only slightly better than the season-lows from last week, but there were some areas of improvement—most notably the first no-turnover performance and the second quarter and first down production.

In the second quarter against Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College the Irish managed only 149 yards and eight first downs on 46 plays (3.2 yards per snap). Against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame notched seven first downs and gained 114 yards on 20 plays (5.7 yards per play). First down production followed a similar pattern. The Irish averaged 4.7 yards per first down play against the Spartans, Cardinal and Eagles, but 5.7 yards per snap against Pitt.

But while the Irish improved in the second quarter and on first down, the lack of big plays has become an Achilles’ heel. Notre Dame only managed one explosive gain on the day—a 37-yard strike from Crist to wide receiver T.J. Jones. The single gain and 37 big play yards represent the lowest output of the season, and is something the offense is desperately missing.

From a defensive standpoint, the game was fairly average. A few numbers (the season averages are in parentheses):

  • Plays: 70 (74.7)
  • Yards: 382 (397.8)
  • Yards/play: 5.5 (5.3)
  • 1st downs: 18 (20.7)
  • Negative plays: 7 (6.3)
  • Big plays: 4 (4.7)
  • Big play yards: 139 (135.8)
  • Yards/play excluding big plays: 3.7 (3.7)
  • Yards/play on first down: 5.3 (5.7)
  • Yards/play on open downs: 6.2 (5.7)
  • Yards/play outside the red zone: 6.2 (5.7)

This was certainly a bend-but-don’t-break performance. As the numbers show, the defense wasn’t dominant by any means, even against a fairly pedestrian offensive team. But when it mattered most, the Irish played stout football.

Rushing Offense/Defense

The Panther offense won the battle on first and open downs. For the Irish offense, running the ball was essential to sustaining drives.

Rushing Statistics

[table id=427 /]

After a first half of play-calling that kept the Irish off-balance, Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti went back to the strength of the Panther offense: Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.

Pittsburgh only ran 11 times in the first half (29.7/70.3 run/pass split) for 3.6 yards per attempt. But Cignetti called 18 second-half runs (54.5/45.5 run/pass split) that averaged 4.7 yards per attempt.

Most of the damage was on first and open downs. After holding Stanford to 3.8 yards per first down rush and Boston College to 0.9 yards per carry, the Irish yielded 4.9 yards per attempt to the Panthers. The 4.9-yard average was the second highest of the season.

The same was true on open downs. The Irish only allowed 3.9 yards per carry against Stanford and surrendered only 1.2 yards per rush to Boston College, but gave up 4.9 yards per rush to the Panthers, also the second highest of the season.

The Irish did, however, only surrendered one big gain on the ground—a 30-yard scamper by Lewis. Given that Pitt averaged nearly 90 explosive rushing yards per game and that Graham recorded five big runs in his previous outing, allowing only one rush of more than 15 yards was quite an accomplishment.

A glance at the offensive stat line appears pedestrian—87 yards on 31 carries is nothing to write home about. But three sacks and the victory formation bring the numbers down. Excluding sacks and the plays on which Crist took a knee, the Irish averaged 4.5 yards a carry including 4.2 yards per first down rush.

And this was without the help of any big runs, something that is quickly becoming a problem for the offense. After posting seven rushing gains of 15 or more yards in their first two outings, the Irish have only managed one in the last four.

Despite the lack of big plays, effective running gains were critical to sustaining drives. The Irish had 10 meaningful possessions against Pitt. Three were “successful” in that they were 11-plus play drives that resulted in scores while seven averaged 4.4 plays and included two three and out’s.

Breaking the production into these two sets of possessions (sacks are counted as passes):

  • Successful drives—38 plays, 226 yards, 5.9 yards per play, run/pass split of 44.7/55.3, 4.4 yards per carry, 6.9 yards per pass attempt
  • Non-successful drives—31 plays, 81 yards, 2.6 yards per play, run/pass split of 27.6/72.4, 4.8 yards per carry, 3.7 yards per pass attempt

For the second straight week, sustained scoring possessions have a much higher play-calling preference towards the run.

Passing Offense/Defense

The Irish defense probably didn’t expect what Cignetti threw at them. The offensive passing numbers improved, at least from an efficiency standpoint, but first and third down production moved in opposite directions.

Passing Statistics

[table id=428 /]

Prior to Saturday Pitt’s first down play-calling looked like this:

  • Run—63 attempts, 404 yards, 6.4 yards per carry
  • Pass—48 attempts, 270 yards, 5.6 yards per attempt

The superior per-play average on runs merited the 56.8/43.2 run/pass split. But in the first half against the Irish, Cignetti called a pass on 60 percent of first down snaps and the Panthers averaged 8.1 yards per attempt.

The run was working on first down (5-yard per carry average), but play-action and moving quarterback Tino Sunseri outside the pocket with a run/pass option was even more effective—in the first half the redshirt sophomore completed 72 percent of his first down throws for 148 yards.

The problem was on third down. Sunseri posted solid third down numbers (7 for 11, 63.6 percent completion rate, 7.4 yards per play, 148 passer efficiency), but the Irish defense kept everything in front. Only three of Pittsburgh’s 12 third down pass plays moved the chains.

For the Irish offense, the efficiency in the passing game was much improved. Crist completed 61.5 percent of his throws at a rate of 6.2 yards per attempt and 10.1 yards per completion. Considering there was only one explosive play to bolster the per-attempt and per-completion numbers, the stat line reads pretty well.

Most of the success was on first down. In the four games previous to Saturday, the first down completion rate for the Irish was 42.9 percent (Michigan), 42.9 percent (Michigan State), 55 percent (Stanford), and 57.1 percent (Boston College). Against Pitt Crist completed 75 percent of his first down throws.

The passer efficiency numbers run a similar course: Michigan—111.1, Michigan State—126.1, Stanford—122.8, Boston College—91.3. But against Pitt Crist notched a 146 first down passer efficiency.

Unfortunately, the Irish signal caller struggled late in the down series. Crist completed only 25 percent of his third down throws and posted a passer efficiency of 42.9—both, by far, season lows. Perhaps most discouraging, only one of nine third down pass plays moved the chains.

Drive Offense/Defense

Once again, it was hit-or-miss for the Irish offense. From a production standpoint, Pittsburgh’s offense nearly matched Stanford’s output.

Drive Statistics*

[table id=429 /]

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

Most of Notre Dame’s offensive drive marks were at or near season-high values. The plays, first downs, and time of possession per drive values were all the best this year while the two three and out’s, yards per drive, and yards gained percentage were nearly season-best values.

But the Irish continue to struggle with consistency. Counting only meaningful possessions, Notre Dame had two touchdown, five scoring (touchdown and field goal), and five non-scoring drives in this game. The production for these three possession types is as follows (sacks are counted as passes):

  • Touchdown—5.6 yards per play (4.3 per run, 6.5 per pass), 53.6/46.4 run/pass split, 91.7 percent completion rate, 4.4 yards per first down play, average of 3.5 yards to go on third down
  • Scoring—5.7 yards per play (4.2 per run, 6.4 per pass), 40/60 run/pass split, 68 percent completion rate, 6.6 yards per first down play, average of 5.1 yards to go on third down*
  • Non-scoring—2.3 yards per play (5.3 per run, 3.2 per pass), 31.8/68.2 run/pass split, 50 percent completion rate, 5.1 yards per first down play, average of 11.8 yards to go on third down

* The 6.6-yard first down play average is skewed by Jones’ 37-yard reception (2.4-yard average without it)

As Crist goes, so go the Irish. When the Irish signal caller was on, the offense sustained drives and scored points. The per-play average trends with the completion percentage as does the average distance on third down. The run may have been a more integral part of the scoring drives and aided execution in the passing game, but the production—particularly the efficiency—through the air is ultimately what determined the outcome of the possessions.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish defense struggled to get off the field. Notre Dame allowed three drives of 10-plus plays, forced only one three and out, and surrendered 45.3 percent of available yards. Virtually every one of those numbers is second only to the performance against Stanford.

Whereas allowing too many third down conversions was the problem against the Cardinal, not forcing third downs was the primary deficiency in this contest. Additionally, Pitt faced short yardage on 33 percent of third downs while only 46.7 percent were long distance situations. The former is a season-high and the latter a season-low, not where you want to be in terms of situational defense.

Recapping the Game

There were plenty of positives in this contest.

The special teams played excellent football. Pitt’s average field position following a Ben Turk punt was their own 14-yard line, Turk’s final three punts pinned the Panther offense inside their own 10-yard line, and kicker David Ruffer extended his streak of made field goals to 15 (and broke the record on a 50-yard try for good measure).

Additionally, the offense didn’t turn the ball over for the first time all season and the defense closed out the game playing their best when it mattered most, a rare occurrence in recent years.

Unfortunately, there were also negatives.

While the defense has shown steady improvement, the offense appears to be regressing. Critical penalties kept a host of yards out of the box score and (at least) seven points off the scoreboard, and dropped passes continue to be a problem. These self-inflicted, recurring mistakes are among the primary reasons the Irish aren’t playing up to their potential.

Head coach Brian Kelly is managing the game with his play-calling and giving Crist what he can handle, but the execution has certainly been lacking. The game plan seems to focus on attacking the perimeter with quick, possession throws and the middle with the running game.

But without big gains on the ground, opposing defenses aren’t forced to pinch their safeties and can keep extra defenders on the edge. Moreover, defensive coordinators are content to sit back, keep everything underneath, and force consistent execution—something the Irish haven’t proven capable of doing.

In order for the offense to improve, something has to give. Until Crist can handle the full package the Irish need more production from the running game and/or better execution in the passing game. Mistakes have forced Crist and company to play from behind the chains far too often, something the offense isn’t well-equipped to do with a limited playbook.



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