Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. USC
The Irish stopped the Trojans eight-game win streak in dramatic fashion Saturday night. Robert Hughes five-yard touchdown run with 2:23 remaining capped off a physical, run-heavy drive that gave head coach Brian Kelly his second three-game win streak of the season.
Looking back this could certainly be a season of what if’s. What if quarterback Dayne Crist hadn’t been injured in the Michigan game? What if safety Harrison Smith hadn’t tripped on the overtime field goal against Michigan State? What if Kelly had kicked the field goal against Tulsa?
But that would diminish the accomplishments over the past four weeks. Sitting at 4-5 with the beatdown from Navy and the home loss to Tulsa fresh in the players’ minds, the Irish could have folded. They instead used the bye week to dig deep and have played some of their best football of the season over the last three games, particularly on defense.
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 the Trojans 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, Utah and Army.
Red zone offense was really the deciding factor in this game. Penalties were lopsided in favor of the Irish. Situational defense was average, but third down play was still strong. Situational offense was the best all year but the efficiency was poor despite it.
|Avg yds per penalty||10||5.9|
|3rd down conv||5||4|
|3rd down efficiency||33.3||23.5|
|4th down conv||0||2|
|4th down efficiency||--||66.7|
|Red zone appearances||3||3|
|Red zone scores||3||3|
|Red zone efficiency||100||100|
|Red zone TD||3||1|
|Red zone TD efficiency||100||33.3|
When few points are scored and the outcome is decided by a narrow margin, capitalizing on red zone opportunities is critical to winning. Such was the case against the Trojans. Notre Dame scored a touchdown on all three red zone appearances while USC only managed one touchdown—a two-yard “drive” after quarterback Tommy Rees’ fumble—on their three appearances.
But, at least for the Irish defense, the strong red zone performance is nothing new. The Irish have only allowed a touchdown on 42.1 percent of opponent red zone appearances—good for 7th best in the country—and have allowed fewer than two red zone touchdowns in seven of 12 games.
Notre Dame has consistently been good in the penalty department—the Irish rank 9th in penalties per game and 22nd in penalty yards per game—but having only one infraction for 10 yards is an exceptional performance, particularly given the weather conditions. USC didn’t rack up a lot of penalty yards, but many of them put the Trojan offense behind the chains making execution difficult with a backup quarterback.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s troops played well on third down. USC entered the game converting over 45 percent of their third downs but only moved the chains on four of 17 (23.5 percent) opportunities against the Irish. And it wasn’t because of favorable situational characteristics.
The Trojans averaged 4.7 yards per first down play and five yards to go on third down, and faced three yards or more 64.7 percent of the time. Compared to the opponent season averages for Notre Dame (5.2, 6.8 and 67.5 respectively), these values are right on par. The Irish just played sound football on third down, particularly against the pass. USC head coach Lane Kiffin called a pass on nine of 17 third downs and only one was good for a first down.
For the offense, the situational play was some of the worst all year. The Irish faced an average of 4.7 yards to go on third down—a season-low mark—and needed more than three yards to move the chains on only 46.7 percent of third downs—another season-low mark. Yet, despite these favorable down and distances, Rees and company moved the chains on only a third of their opportunities.
It wasn’t the worst offensive performance of the year, but it wasn’t far off either. The Irish were able to overcome (points off) turnovers for the first time this season. The strong defensive play of the past three outings continues.
|Negative play yds||-16||-4|
|Big play yds||76||34|
|Big play avg||25.3||34|
|Big play yds %||25.7||13|
|Avg excluding big plays||3.5||3.4|
No matter how you slice it, virtually every offensive category is at or near a season-worst value. The 296 yards of total offense is second only to Utah. The 4.5 yards per play is behind only Boston College. The 15 first downs ties for the second fewest. And the three explosive plays and 76 big play yards are third-lowest of the year.
The biggest problem for the offense was turnovers. The Irish had 14 possessions, four of which ended in a fumble or interception. Not only did these giveaways kill drives before they could get started, all four turnovers came before a single first down was generated and resulted in all 16 USC points.
Of course, this is nothing new for an Irish team that ranks 73rd in turnover margin. Notre Dame is +5 in turnover margin in seven wins and -8 in five losses. But more telling are the points off turnovers. The turnover story for the seven wins and losses (turnovers/average resulting field position/points off turnovers):
- Wins—10/Notre Dame 46-yard line/25
- Losses—14/Opponent 48-yard line/44
The points off turnovers stand out as the largest factors but takeaways also help tell the story. The Irish defense forced 15 turnovers in their seven wins and only six in their five losses. The number of turnovers and average resulting field position appear to be similar in the wins and losses but the contest against USC heavily skews the results.
Excluding the game against the Trojans the breakdown looks decidedly different:
- Wins—6/Opponent 39-yard line/9
- Losses—14/Opponent 48-yard line/44
To be certain, this was the first time all year the Irish were able to overcome turnovers and the points opposing teams generated from them, and the play on the other side of the ball was a big reason for it.
Defensively, Diaco’s unit continued the strong play from the previous three games. A breakdown of USC’s offensive output (season per-game averages/rank entering the weekend in parentheses):
- Pts—16 (32.6/20)
- Touchdowns—1 (4.4/22)
- Yds—261 (443.1/21)
- 1st downs—12 (24.5/12)
- Yds/play—3.8 (6.1/33)
The Irish held USC to roughly 50 percent of their average output in these categories.
But more impressive is the performance over the past four games. Since being dissected by Navy Notre Dame ranks 7th in points per game, 11th in yards per game, 10th in yards per play, and 4th in first downs per game. That’s at least a top 10 defense going against offenses with average rankings of 30, 41, 42 and 43 in those categories. In other words, the strong defensive play isn’t because of weak offensive competition.
One of the primary reasons for the improvement is limiting big plays. The defense struggled to minimize big plays in the early going, particularly against Michigan and Michigan State, as seven of the first 10 touchdowns came via explosive gains. Since then, and particularly over the past three/four games, the defense has improved dramatically defending big plays.
A comparison of the per-game big play production in the first eight games to the last four (big plays/big play yards/big play touchdowns):
- First eight games—4.6/136.4/1.3
- Last four games—3.5/84.8/0
|Negative run yds||-13||-4|
|Big run yds||54||0|
|Big run avg||27||--|
|Big run yds %||36.7||--|
|Avg excluding big runs||3.1||--|
The last three games have been some of the most efficient for the Irish running game. Notre Dame has averaged 33 attempts, 143 yards, and 4.3 yards per carry over this three-game span, compared to season averages of 30.5, 120.8, and 4. The production may not seem overly impressive, but it has come despite some of the most run-heavy play-calling this season.
Kelly was fairly balanced against USC (run/pass split of 48.5/51.5), but has been decidedly in favor of the run over the last three outings. The Irish play-caller has dialed up a run on 57.2 percent of plays in the last four games compared to throwing the ball on 67.3 percent of snaps in the other nine contests.
Hughes and Cierre Wood have been particularly impressive in the aforementioned three-game span. The two Irish backs have combined for 72 carries, 377 yards (5.2 yards per carry), and 16 first downs.
On the other side of the ball, the run defense has been extremely stout the past four games. Notre Dame has allowed just over 95 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry against teams that average 200 yards and 4.8 yards per attempt. USC was no exception.
A comparison of the Trojan ground production (season average entering Saturday (rank)/season low entering Saturday/production against the Irish):
- Yds—192.4 (26)/108/74
- Yds/att—5.2 (18)/3.1/2.6
- 1st downs—10.6 (21)/5/4
Just like they did against Army, the Irish established new season-lows in every category against a strong running team.
Not much going on for either offense through the air.
|Big pass yds||22||34|
|Big pass avg||22||34|
|Big pass yds %||14.8||18.2|
|Avg/att excluding big passes||3.8||4|
|Avg/comp excluding big passes||6.7||7.3|
While the running game produced against a very athletic Trojan front, the Irish didn’t fare as well through the air.
In many ways the performance was puzzling. Rees wasn’t frequently pressured, had performed well in his previous two outings against Utah and Army, and was facing a defense that ranked 114th in passing yards per game, 88th in yards per pass attempt, and 95th in pass efficiency entering the weekend.
But Notre Dame posted, by far, their lowest pass efficiency and yard per attempt and completion values of the season, and only recorded one passing gain in excess of 20 yards for only the second time all year. The last of these seems to be the culprit for the overall production but the per-attempt and completion averages excluding big plays were nearly season-low values and well below the season average.
Perhaps even more telling was the hit/miss aspect of Rees’ performance. In the final two touchdown scoring drives of the first half Rees was 11 of 15 (73.3 percent) for 87 yards (5.8 yards per attempt, 7.9 yards per completion). The per-attempt and completion averages won’t blow anyone away, but they are much higher than the overall game values.
Without starting quarterback Matt Barkley, not much was expected from a Trojan passing offense that entered the game ranked 35th in the country at 35.1 pass attempts per game. But that doesn’t mean the Irish defense wasn’t tested through the air.
Kiffin didn’t dial his game plan back much for Barkley’s replacement, as Mitch Mustain threw the ball 39 times with minimal reward. Mustain managed to complete only 56.4 percent of his throws for only 187 yards, 4.8 yards per attempt, and 8.5 yards per completion, the lowest values allowed by the Irish defense since the season opener against Purdue.
As was the case for most of the year for the Irish offense, only a few drives were really rolling…but one of those was the final scoring drive that was a thing of beauty. As for the defense, USC didn’t do much even with a short field.
|Avg field pos||ND19||USC46|
|Avg TOP per drive||1:59||2:14|
|3 and out's||4||3|
|3 and out's %||28.6||21.4|
|Avg plays per drive||4.7||4.9|
|Avg 1st downs per drive||1.1||0.9|
|Avg yds per drive||21.1||18.6|
|Yds gained %||26.2||30.3|
* Values only include meaningful possessions.
Notre Dame faced their worst starting field position of the year—their own 19-yard line—11 yards behind their average starting field position. The result? The lowest percentage of yards gained all season.
Three drives were successful ones that eclipsed six plays and 60 yards while 11 drives resulted in one fumble, three interceptions, six punts, and four three and outs. The biggest difference between these two sets of drives was the success of the ground game and explosive plays.
The production breakdown for these two sets of drives:
- Successful—30 plays, 218 yards, 7.3 yards per snap, 8.9 yards per rush attempt, 3 explosive gains for 76 yards, 12.6 yards per first down rush, 13 first downs, 100 percent of available yards gained
- Unsuccessful—36 plays, 78 yards, 2.2 yards per snap, 2 yards per rush attempt, 0 explosive gains, 2.3 yards per first down rush, 2 first downs, 8.5 percent of available yards gained
The run/pass split of the two drive sets wasn’t demonstrably different (43.3/56.7 for successful possessions, 50/50 for unsuccessful ones) and the completion percentage wasn’t dramatically different either (56.7 for successful, 50 for unsuccessful). But the production on the ground—particularly on first down—really determined which drives ended in touchdowns.
And this was no more true than on the final scoring drive, one that will be remembered for a long time. The Irish took 3:55 off the clock by marching 77 yards in only seven plays with play-calling that even the most devoted pass-happy offensive mind would love:
- Pass, Floyd, gain of 11
- Run, Wood, gain of 26
- Run, Hughes, gain of 6
- Run, Hughes, gain of 12
- Run, Hughes, gain of 13
- Pass, Floyd, gain of 4
- Run, Hughes, gain of 5, touchdown
That’s five runs for 62 yards—good for a whopping 12.4 yards per carry. When the Irish needed it most, their front five came alive and senior Robert Hughes bulled his way into the end zone. A fitting reversal after the Trojans owned the trenches in each of the last four meetings.
On the other side of the ball USC’s four scoring “drives” looked like this: 19 plays, 43 yards, 2.3 yards per play, and two first downs. If USC didn’t start these four possessions with average field position at the Irish 23-yard line (and with none outside Notre Dame’s 28-yard line), it’s unlikely they would have scored at all.
Recapping the Game
The Irish played far from a perfect game. The offensive performance was one of the worst all year, Rees looked like the true freshman quarterback he is, the four turnovers proved extremely costly, and special teams were far from great—the missed extra point was bad but the Irish also lost 14 yards in field position via exchanged punts and 13 yards via kickoffs.
But that just speaks to how well the defense played. The four USC scoring drives started on an extremely short field but only averaged 10.8 yards and generated 16 points.
In other words, for the first time all year, Notre Dame was able to overcome self-inflicted mistakes, catch a few breaks, and pull out a win. And after all that has happened this season, it was nice to see some luck for the lads in blue and gold.
The common theme of the past three wins has been a relatively productive and mostly efficient running game paired with stout defensive play. The lines on both sides of the ball are playing their best football of the season and the team is undoubtedly more mentally and physically tough than they were earlier in the year.
Moreover, the Irish are certainly a better team in November than when they started the season, even playing with a true freshman quarterback and without a host of critical personnel. To his credit, Kelly stuck with his plan, stayed consistent in his approach, and developed his team into a hardworking, tough unit. They are far from an elite squad, but this group could have easily folded after Navy and Tulsa. Instead, they ripped off three wins to become bowl eligible and end the year with a healthy amount of momentum.