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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

By · November 4th, 2010 · 3 Comments
Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

A home loss to a non-BCS conference opponent is always tough. But off the heels of a blowout defeat at the hands of the Midshipmen, it hurts even worse.

The 2010 Fighting Irish are beginning to look a lot like the previous two versions. Perhaps the most distinguishable characteristic of the past two teams has been late-season collapses. After opening the year relatively strong, the previous two squads posted a 1-8 (0.111) record in November. The poor finish nearly cost the team bowl eligibility last season, and it appears the 2010 Irish are quickly headed down a similar path.

After the disaster in East Rutherford, becoming bowl eligible was one of head coach Brian Kelly’s primary goals. But the loss to Tulsa has certainly made that a challenging task. Assuming defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has discovered how to defend the triple-option, army looks like a winnable game. But Utah and USC are hardly contests that can be penciled into the win column.

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 Tulsa 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, Boston College, Western Michigan, Navy.


The refs all but tried to give the game to the home team. The Irish offense struggled on third down while the defense forced Tulsa’s second-worst third down efficiency of the year despite poor play on early downs. Both units fared well inside the 20-yard line.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics

[table id=495 /]

The Irish had their share of infractions Saturday, seven penalties for 46 yards. But Tulsa was flagged 12 times for 133 yards, well above their season averages prior to this contest—4.3 penalties and 37.1 penalty yards per game. Something about that just ain’t right.

Third down was a problem for both offenses.

Notre Dame played well on early downs as they faced a third down on only 36.8 percent of play series. Yet the Irish converted three of 14 opportunities (21.4 percent), mostly because there were a host of long distance situations. Of the 14 third downs, 10 (71.4 percent) needed seven-plus yards to move the chains while 12 (85.7) required more than three yards for a first down. Both tie the game against the Wolverines as season-worst values.

As expected, the Irish were pass-happy in these situations, but the production didn’t follow the play-calling. Quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist combined to complete only three of eight pass attempts for 2.7 yards per attempt and three yards per completion. Worst of all, only one completion was good for a first down.

Tulsa entered the game ranked 12th in the country in third down efficiency at 50.9 percent, but Diaco’s troops performed well on third down despite unfavorable down and distances. A breakdown of Notre Dame’s third down situational defense (Tulsa’s season numbers prior to Saturday are listed in italics):

  • Total—6 of 16 (26.1 percent), 48.5 percent of play series/53 of 104 (50.9 percent), 40.5 percent of play series
  • Third and short—2 of 7 (28.6 percent), 43.8 percent of third downs/23 of 33 (69.7 percent), 31.7 percent of third downs
  • Third and medium—2 of 5 (40 percent), 31.3 percent of third downs/15 of 24 (62.5 percent), 23.1 percent of third downs
  • Third and long2 of 4 (50 percent), 25 percent of third downs/15 of 47 (31.9 percent), 45.2 percent of third downs

The Irish forced more third downs than Tulsa typically faced, but most came in manageable distance situations that favored the Golden Hurricane offense. Despite this, the Irish played very sound defense and held Tulsa’s offense well below their average conversion rates.

For the offense, the red zone was the Tommy Rees show. Red zone passing numbers for Rees on Saturday and for the Irish prior to the game:

  • Rees—5.8 yards/attempt, 7.3 yards/completion, 80 percent completion rate, 286.7 pass efficiency
  • Prior to game—3.7 yards/attempt, 6.3 yards/completion, 62 percent completion rate, 160.6 pass efficiency

With the exception of the final interception, Rees played an excellent game inside the Tulsa 20-yard line.

It was a similar story for the defense. Some red zone numbers for Tulsa and the eight prior Irish opponents:

  • Tulsa—11 plays, 1.4 yards/play, 3 negative plays (27.3 percent), 7 gains of two or fewer yards (63.6 percent)
  • Eight prior opponents—87 plays, 2.8 yards/play, 5 negative plays (5.7 percent), 46 gains of two or fewer yards (52.9 percent)

Notre Dame forced negative and short yardage gains at a much higher rate in this game which ultimately led to excellent third down defense inside the red zone.

Total Offense/Defense

One of the best offensive games of the year…except for the turnovers (and points off them). The Irish defense held Tulsa well below their season average in a host of metrics.

Total Statistics

[table id=496 /]

The Irish offense produced a season-best, or near season-best, performance in multiple metrics: 26 first downs, 29:33 in time of possession, 80 plays, 5.7 yards per play, three negative plays, seven big plays, and 4.1 yards per play excluding explosive gains.

If it weren’t for the four turnovers, this game would have easily been the best all-around total offensive performance of the season. Unfortunately, one interception ended the game (more on this later), one resulted in a pick-six, and another cost the Irish a potential shot at a field goal before the half.

Excluding the game against Western Michigan which heavily skews the numbers in favor of Notre Dame, the Irish have forced 12 turnovers for 20 points (1.7 points per turnover) but have surrendered 18 turnovers for 50 points (2.8 points per turnover). Turnovers and points from them continue to be costly for Notre Dame.

Similar to the offense, the defense played a very good game. Virtually every total defensive metric was well below the season average. But perhaps more impressive was that the performance came against a very prolific offense. To wit (numbers in parentheses represent Tulsa’s offensive averages entering the game):

  • Pts—13 (37.7)
  • Yds/play—5.5 (6.3)
  • Yds—399 (491.6)
  • 1st downs—18 (26.3)
  • Negative plays—11 (5.6)
  • Big play TD—0 (1.9)
  • Avg excluding big gains—3.4 (4.1)

About the only black eye was allowing seven explosive gains generate 175 yards. Nevertheless, quite a rebounding effort after the lackluster performance against Navy.

Rushing Offense/Defense

The Irish rushing numbers appear respectable, but a deeper look tells a different story. Defensively, the Golden Hurricane offense flourished when the running game was in rhythm as the Irish had one of their worst outings of the year against a very good running team.

Rushing Statistics

[table id=497 /]

Notre Dame’s offense posted a season-high 5.2 yards per carry as 24 attempts gained 124 yards including three gains of 15-plus yards. But much of the production wasn’t “real” in the traditional sense.

Crist gained 29 yards on a scramble—a play that wasn’t even called as a run—while wide receiver Bennett Jackson executed a well-timed fake punt to the tune of 20 yards. Remove these two plays and the Irish rushing ledger shrinks: 75 yards at 3.4 yards per carry, and only five first downs.

Moreover, the run/pass mix was a season-low 30/70 as seven of the 22 “real” rushing attempts came in short yardage situations and the Irish failed to score a touchdown on the ground for the third time this season. Notre Dame currently ranks 101st in the country in rushing touchdowns.

Given Tulsa’s vulnerability through the air and track record for stopping the run, a pass-heavy game plan was all but expected. Still, the inability to post decent rushing gains against a three-man front is surprising as was Kelly calling 54 passes without Crist under center.

On the other side of the ball, Tulsa chewed up plenty of yards on the ground with most of the damage coming on first down and via big gains. The Irish surrendered 6.1 yards per first down rush (second only to Michigan State), 203 rushing yards at 5.2 yards per carry (second only to Michigan and Navy), and four explosive gains.

But the real trendsetter was the way the Golden Hurricane offense stalled without production on the ground.

Notre Dame faced 14 meaningful drives. Four of these were “unsuccessful” for the Irish defense as Tulsa gained 83.3 percent of available yards and scored all of their 13 points. The other 10 drives averaged 17.6 percent of available yards and no points. Grouping the rushing production by these drives types:

  • Successful—Total: 16 rushes for 173 yards (10.8 yards per attempt), First down: 8 runs for 79 yards (9.9 yards per attempt)
  • Non-successful—Total: 17 rushes for 57 yards (3.4 yards per attempt), First down: 10 runs for 37 yards (3.7 yards per attempt)

The play-calling balance was almost identical on successful (45.7/54.3) and non-successful (45.9/54.1) drives, the difference was how well the Irish defended the run. Tulsa entered the contest as a run-first team, and without it they certainly struggled.

Passing Offense/Defense

Rees performed about as well as Crist did in the first eight games. With the exception of big plays, the Irish played arguably their best pass defense of the season against one of the better pass offenses they’ve faced.

Passing Statistics

[table id=498 /]

Rees’ passing numbers were a bit low in efficiency and a bit high in production, an expected outcome of a green quarterback who attempted 54 passes. The three interceptions were costly, but all came in situations where the offense was pressing the ball. When he was able to sit back and relax, Rees surveyed the field fairly well, got the ball out quickly, and looked like a solid decision-making quarterback.

A breakdown of the freshman signal caller’s performance against Tulsa (Crist’s numbers for the year are in parentheses):

  • Comp %—61.1 (59.2)
  • Yds/att—6.2 (6.9)
  • Yds/comp—10.1 (11.7)
  • Att/TD—13.5 (19.6)
  • Att/int—18 (42)
  • Pass eff—126.4 (129.3)
  • Yds/att excluding big plays—13.5 (14.7)
  • Yds/comp excluding big plays—5.2 (4.9)
  • Att/big play—13.5 (14.7)

Save yards per attempt/completion and interceptions, Rees compares favorably to Crist, and in some cases better. The performance was against an admittedly poor pass defense, but Rees was also without a lot of proven receiving options.

Defensively, excluding the game against Navy which skews the passing stats, the Irish put up their best performance of the year in yards, completion percentage, first downs, and open down per-play average. Notre Dame also generated five sacks, tied for a season-high with the performance against Boston College.

The only real downside to the play of the Irish defense was big play production. The Irish allowed three big gains at 28.3 yard per play through the air against a team that thrives on explosive plays. Still, the yards per attempt and completion averages excluding these big plays were very near the season-low values.

Drive Offense/Defense

Per the norm, it was sink or swim for the Irish offense. When the defense did the things it was supposed to—stop the run and prevent big plays—Tulsa didn’t score.

Drive Statistics*

[table id=499 /]

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

The per-drive numbers in time of possession, plays, first downs, yards, percentage of yards gained, and points are all just about the season averages for the Irish offense, but it was feast or famine as poor first down production forced short-lived possessions.

In what is becoming a recurring trend, if the Irish get a first down, they usually get several. Notre Dame had five three and out’s against Tulsa, good for a third of their possessions and second-most only to the outing against Boston College.

On the five three and out’s Rees and company averaged 0.2 yards per first down play. This set up third downs with an average distance of 10 yards. Compare that to the other 10 drives where the offense averaged 6.7 yards per first down snap leading to much shorter third down situations (average distance of 6.8 yards).

The primary problem was the running game. The first down run/pass split on three and out drives was 60/40 and the Irish averaged 0.2 yards per attempt. The per-rush average was slightly better on the other 10 possessions—2.9 yards per carry—but the run was used much less frequently (21.2/78.8 run/pass clip) as first down pass plays gained an average of 7.7 yards per attempt.

The Golden Hurricane offense entered the weekend having gained 54.7 percent of available yards. The Irish defense held them to 36.9 percent. Not only was this the second best effort of the season for Notre Dame, it was well below Tulsa’s typical production.

The aforementioned rushing trends played a part in Tulsa’s ability to score, but big plays were also a common theme. The Golden Hurricane offense generated five big plays on their three scoring drives but only two on 11 non-scoring possessions. Tulsa entered the game deriving a lot of success from their big play capability, and when the Irish corralled it, they were able to get off the field and prevent scores.

Recapping the Game

The Irish were fortunate to even be in this game.

The offense was without running back Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and wide receiver Theo Riddick, and Crist went down with a season-ending injury on the second drive. The defense was missing Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. All six are starters and solid contributors. Additionally, wide receiver Michael Floyd, tackle Taylor Dever, and safety Jamoris Slaughter all battled lingering bumps and bruises.

If the injuries weren’t enough, special team gaffes gave Tulsa nine points, the Irish coughed up four turnovers—one an interception returned for a touchdown—and a true freshman spent the bulk of the game under center. To say that the deck was stacked against Notre Dame would be putting it mildly.

And yet, the Irish still had an opportunity to win the game and take a big step towards bowl eligibility and the 15 extra practices they desperately need.

A week after being exposed by a Navy team that subsequently lost to Duke, the Irish defense played very well against a potent Golden Hurricane offense. Rees, who performed very poorly in limited action against Michigan, set a Notre Dame freshman record with four passing touchdowns. There was even a few play-calling wrinkles—a fake punt and a hook-and-ladder—thrown in for good measure and executed with precision.

In fact, an argument can be made that this was the best defensive performance of the year and the play of the offense, excluding the four turnovers, wasn’t far behind even with all the injuries and a freshman quarterback in his first extended playing time.

Which makes the call at the end of the game such a puzzling—and frustrating—decision.

Rees played as well as could be expected, but he is a true freshman who had already thrown two picks. Kicker David Ruffer hasn’t missed a field goal all season, has made 18 straight tries, and the distance was well within his range. And it was second and eight from the Tulsa 19-yard line with two timeouts to stop the clock (should they be needed), and two downs to pull even closer to the end zone.

Handing it off twice and attempting a field goal gave Notre Dame the best chance for a victory. Rees’ red zone play prior to that point and the injury to long snapper Billy Flavin may have factored into the decision, and a one-on-one matchup with Floyd is certainly a good option, but not with everything at stake and with all the team overcame just to be in a position to win.

Now the Irish must pull an upset against Utah or USC to go bowling, something they desperately need.



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