Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Army
After getting shellacked by Navy and losing a heartbreaker to Tulsa (with some questionable coaching decisions to boot), it was difficult to imagine the Irish becoming bowl eligible, let alone having a chance to win out.
But Notre Dame has outscored their last two opponents by a combined 55-6 and heads to the West Coast to battle the rival Trojans on the heels of two decisive victories. And this without a host of starters including quarterback Dayne Crist who’s true freshman replacement has been helped by a dominant defense, a resurgent running game, and manageable play-calling by head coach Brian Kelly.
To say that the Irish are playing their best football late in the season would be an understatement, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
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 Army 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, Pittsburgh, Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa and Utah.
Defensively, the Irish did to Army what they did to Utah…only better, at least after the first drive. Offensively, third down was the Tommy Rees show.
|Avg yds per penalty||11||9.3|
|3rd down conv||8||7|
|3rd down efficiency||57.1||43.8|
|4th down conv||0||0|
|4th down efficiency||--||--|
|Red zone appearances||3||1|
|Red zone scores||2||1|
|Red zone efficiency||66.7||100|
|Red zone TD||1||0|
|Red zone TD efficiency||33.3||0|
Not much outstanding in any category apart from third down.
Against a run-heavy team that uses three downs to chew through 10 yards with regularity, first down defense is essential. Army entered the game with an excellent third down conversion rate mostly because of strong first down offense. The Irish reversed the trend.
A breakdown of Army’s situational offense (season averages prior to the game against Notre Dame are in parentheses):
- Avg per play on 1st down—3.1 (5.6)
- % of 3rd down play series—88.9 (50.7)
- Avg yds to go on 3rd down—7.5 (5.3)
- 3rd down efficiency—43.8 (48)
- % 3rd and short—37.5 (42.3)
- % 3rd and long—43.8 (32.9)
The numbers above appear strong, but are even more compelling when the first Army drive is excluded. The Black Knights situational offense sans their first possession (again, season averages prior to the game against the Irish are in parentheses):
- Avg per play on 1st down—1.4 (5.6)
- % of 3rd down play series—91.7 (50.7)
- Avg yds to go on 3rd down—9.4 (5.3)
- 3rd down efficiency—27.3 (48)
- % 3rd and short—18.2 (42.3)
- % 3rd and long—54.5 (32.9)
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s adjustments after the first possession certainly worked. Army generated only two short yardage third down plays after their first possession compared to nine third downs with more than three yards needed to move the chains. The Black Knights only converted two of these nine opportunities (22.2 percent).
For the Irish offense, third down belonged to quarterback Tommy Rees. Kelly called a pass on 71.4 percent of Notre Dame’s third down snaps. Despite needing an average of 8.3 yards to move the chains, Rees completed seven of his 10 throws for 11.5 yards per attempt, 16.4 yards per completion, four gains of 20-plus yards, five first downs, and a passer efficiency of 166.6. An exceptional performance, to say the least.
The first half offensive production was the best all year, particularly the big play production. On the other side of the ball, the story is very similar for the entire game, but it has really been the last three outings that are impressive.
|Negative play yds||-18||-19|
|Big play yds||205||61|
|Big play avg||25.6||20.3|
|Big play yds %||55.6||35.1|
|Avg excluding big plays||3.3||2.4|
The first half offensive production was the best for the Irish all season. Notre Dame amassed 262 yards on only 31 plays at 8.5 yards per clip. The total yards and per-play average are the most this season.
Kelly was run-heavy in his first half play-calling with a run/pass split of 58.1/41.9, the highest of the season. But it was the passing output that really set the mark. Rees completed 61.5 percent of his throws in the first half for 13.1 yards per attempt, a blistering 21.3 yards per completion, and one touchdown.
Not surprisingly, the big play production was also the most in the first two quarters of any game this year. Two runs and six passes went for explosive gains that totaled 205 of the 262 first half yards. The eight big plays and 205 yards were the most in the first half all season (and more than several games) as were the six big gains and 164 explosive yards through the air.
As for the defense, Army posted the fewest yards (174), first downs (8), and yards per play (3.4) of any Irish opponent, and all three values are well below the average offensive output of the Black Knights.
But the strong performance has been the rule, rather than the exception, over the previous three games. The Irish defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 11 quarters of play—the last a nine yard passing score by quarterback G.J. Kinne on Tulsa’s opening possession—and has only allowed 19 points combined in the last three outings (two of Tulsa’s touchdowns came on non-defensive plays).
But even including the interception and punt return for touchdowns by the Golden Hurricane, the last three games have been exceptional for the Irish defense. Over this three-game span Notre Dame has allowed 11.3 points per game (4th in the country), 279.3 yards per game (15), 4.3 yards per play (10), and 14 first downs per game (6). In other words, Diaco has fielded (at least) a top 10 defense against the last three Irish opponents.
And it hasn’t come against weak offensive competition. Tulsa ranks 11th in scoring offense, 7th in yards per game, 28th in yards per play, and 5th in first downs per game. Utah ranks 14th, 35th, 19th, and 57th in the same categories. The Black Knights rank 54th, 88th, 90th, and 79th, but much of their production is skewed by their run-heavy offense which the Irish completely shut down (see below).
The game plan against Navy may have been unforgivably bad, but it was an aberration—Diaco’s troops completely shut down the Army option running attack. Offensively, the Irish got arguably their best production of the season.
|Negative run yds||-18||-19|
|Big run yds||41||34|
|Big run avg||20.5||17|
|Big run yds %||26.5||25.2|
|Avg excluding big runs||3.2||2.5|
A statistical summary isn’t required to show how dominant the Irish defense was Saturday night, but it certainly paints a clear—and compelling—picture. A breakdown of Army’s offensive rushing production (season average entering the weekend/season-worst entering the weekend/production against Notre Dame):
- 1st downs—14.7/10/6
- 1st down yds/att—5/3/2.1
- Open down yds/att—5/3.7/1.7
No matter how you slice it, the Irish dominated the Black Knights rushing attack more than any previous opponent had all season. Every category listed above is, by far, a new season-worst value for Army.
On offense, Notre Dame eclipsed 150 rushing yards for only the third time in 2010 as Kelly called the highest percentage of running plays all year—run/pass split of 65.5/34.5—besting last week’s 59.2/40.8 mark.
The Irish were decidedly run-heavy in the first half with a 58.1/41.9 split as 18 rush attempts produced 92 yards (5.1 yards per carry). Once a sizeable lead was established in the second half, Kelly was even more slanted to the ground game, calling 20 runs to only seven passes (74.1/25.9).
About the only negatives were too few explosive gains (two on 38 attempts) and the second half efficiency dip (3.2 yards per carry) that made it difficult for the Irish to close out the game in dominant fashion.
Apart from quarterback Trent Steelman’s first pass, Army didn’t produce much through the air. Rees’ numbers, on the other hand, were as efficient as last week but with more production.
|Big pass yds||164||27|
|Big pass avg||27.3||27|
|Big pass yds %||76.6||69.2|
|Avg/att excluding big passes||3.6||1.7|
|Avg/comp excluding big passes||7.1||12|
Kelly seems determined to use an improved running game to keep the burden off his young signal caller. While Rees may have attempted 54 passes against the porous Golden Hurricane secondary, he has only attempted 40 combined in the past two games.
The result has been two efficient outings. Rees has posted passer efficiency ratings North of 160 in consecutive weeks and has thrown four touchdown passes and only a single interception.
The primary difference between last week’s performance against Utah and this week’s against Army was explosiveness. In both games Rees was 13 of 20 (65 percent), but the per-attempt and completion averages, long gains, and explosive production were much better against the Black Knights.
A comparison of Rees’ pass production against Utah and Army (yards per attempt/yards per completion/long gain/explosive plays/explosive play yards):
As noted above, the majority of the big play production against the Black Knights came in the first half when the running game was chewing up five-plus yards per attempt, something the Irish haven’t had working since early in the season.
Through the meaningful minutes, both sides of the ball were the best, or close to the best, in a host of categories.
|Avg field pos||ND32||ARMY23|
|Avg TOP per drive||3:15||2:41|
|3 and out's||1||4|
|3 and out's %||11.1||40|
|Avg plays per drive||6.2||4.8|
|Avg 1st downs per drive||1.7||0.8|
|Avg yds per drive||41.2||15.5|
|Yds gained %||55.6||18.2|
* Values only include meaningful possessions.
Army entered the game against Notre Dame gaining 48.7 percent of available yards. Against the Irish defense, they gained a paltry 18.2 percent. It was the lowest available yards totaled against Diaco’s defense all year by a team that routinely sustains drives.
Take away the first drive, however, and the performance is even more impressive. Army’s first possession was a 16 play, 88-yard drive that ended at the Irish two-yard line where Notre Dame managed to prevent a first and goal from resulting in a touchdown.
The remaining (meaningful) drives:
- 3 plays, 7 yards, 2.3 yards per play, 0 1st downs, 8.9 percent of available yards
- 3 plays, 3 yards, 1 yards per play, 0 1st downs, 4.1 percent of available yards
- 3 plays, 4 yards, 1.3 yards per play, 0 1st downs, 5.6 percent of available yards
- 3 plays, 12 yards, 4 yards per play, 1 1st downs, 12.8 percent of available yards
- 3 plays, 3 yards, 1 yards per play, 0 1st downs, 3.9 percent of available yards
- 6 plays, 8 yards, 1.3 yards per play, 1 1st downs, 13.3 percent of available yards
- 2 plays, 2 yards, 1 yards per play, 0 1st downs, -4.3 percent of available yards
- 6 plays, 24 yards, 4.0 yards per play, 1 1st downs, 28.9 percent of available yards
- 3 plays, 4 yards, 1.3 yards per play, 0 1st downs, 4.9 percent of available yards
The numbers are staggering. The longest drive was only six plays and 24 yards, four were three and out’s, and two ended in interceptions—one of which was returned for a touchdown. Much like the situational defense, the Irish turned the tables against an offense that had no problem sustaining drives against almost every opponent they faced this season.
On the other side of the ball, the offense chewed up 55.6 percent of available yards—nearly the best all year—but over 78 percent of the available yards in the first half before Kelly went to a very run-heavy play-calling mode.
The Irish offense also had only one three and out, averaged a season-best 3:15 in time of possession per drive, and scored on three of the first four first half possessions.
Recapping the Game
Asked why the Irish are playing some of their best football without several critical starters, Kelly’s response was simple:
It’s because Notre Dame has moved from being a collection of individuals to being a team.
Looking at how the Irish are performing on the field, it’s difficult to argue with the man at the helm. The little things that make a big difference—wide receivers blocking downfield, sound tackling in open space, good assignment football—are starting to surface more and more as the season wanes, and the Irish appear to have shrugged off their November woes of the past two years.
Over the last three games the lines on both sides of the ball have played with much more intensity, passion and physicality, the defense has been downright dominant, several backup players have stepped up and produced, and the offense has found a running game just in time to help a young—but thus far very efficient—freshman quarterback. To make things even better, a football team that operated with plenty of self-inflicted mistakes early in the year has kept penalties, dropped passes, and turnovers to a minimum in the last two outings.
There is plenty of momentum in South Bend, but the challenge now becomes sustaining it against a very talented opponent. USC’s on-field product this season may not be what it once was under former head coach Pete Carroll, but there is still plenty of athleticism on the roster and the Trojans will likely be motivated to play the Irish.
For now, having two consecutive, dominant wins may be enough. But ending the season on a four-game win streak would be a huge step forward going into 2011.