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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Utah

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Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. Utah

The contest against Utah wasn’t decided by production. For the most part, it wasn’t decided by efficiency either.

The Irish won because they created opportunities and took advantage of them. Notre Dame was able to force two turnovers—one that turned into seven points on the next play—block a punt for a touchdown, and string together two 60-plus yard touchdown drives.

But it was the defense that stole the show. One week removed from a performance against Tulsa that was arguably the best of the season, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s troops trumped their previous effort as the Irish did virtually everything they needed to win the game: stop the run, minimize big gains, and force unfavorable down and distance situations. Even Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham alluded to all three items in his post-game press conference.

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 Utah 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, and Tulsa.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency

Third down was a season-worst effort for the Irish offense and a large contributor to the poor drive metrics (see below). Situational/third down defense and red zone play were critical to the outcome of the game.

Miscellaneous/Efficiency Statistics
NDUU
Penalties511
Penalty yds4570
Avg yds per penalty96.4
3rd downs1015
3rd down conv24
3rd down efficiency2026.7
4th downs14
4th down conv01
4th down efficiency025
Red zone appearances22
Red zone scores20
Red zone efficiency1000
Red zone TD20
Red zone TD efficiency1000

Situational offense is a strength of the Utes and one of the primary reasons the Horned Frog defense had so much success in Salt Lake City was their ability to play well on early downs, force long down and distances, and put the burden of the offense on the shoulders of quarterback Jordan Wynn. The Irish simply followed this blueprint.

A breakdown of the situational defense for the Irish (with Utah’s season averages entering the game in parentheses):

  • Avg per play on 1st down—7 (3.6)
  • % of 3rd down play series—55.6 (45.2)
  • Avg yds to go on 3rd down—9.8 (6.1)
  • 3rd down efficiency—26.7 (50.8)
  • % 3rd and short—13.3 (36.3)
  • % 3rd and long—73.3 (42.4)

Notre Dame’s defense held the Utes to roughly half their season average on first down, forced third downs on a substantially higher percentage of play series, and put the Utes into third and long much more often than they were accustomed. Utah faced 11 third and long situations, attempted 10 passes, and only moved the chains twice. Wynn completed only 40 percent of his throws on these downs for a passer efficiency of 76.1.

The red zone play on both sides of the ball was also strong. Utah entered the game ranked 13th in the country in red zone touchdown efficiency, but the Irish reversed the trend. Likewise, on the other side of the ball, Notre Dame capitalized on their red zone scoring opportunities.

The Utes didn’t manage to cross the Irish 20-yard line until late in the third quarter and also made an appearance in the final period. Both opportunities ended in a turnover on downs as the Irish played stout defense on a short field.

Utah took 10 red zone snaps. Three plays were runs that totaled zero yards while seven pass plays netted only five yards. Wynn was two of seven (28.6 percent) on these red zone pass attempts with a passer efficiency of 34.6.

But the goal-to-go defense was even better. The Utes ran the ball twice and attempted two passes in goal-to-go situations. The runs netted zero yards while both passes fell incomplete.

The trend was opposite for the Irish offense. Notre Dame only ran three plays inside Utah’s 20-yard line but two were touchdown passes.

Total Offense/Defense

Turnovers were critical to the outcome. Offensive production was a forgotten art in this game.

Total Statistics
NDUU
Plays4969
Yds256265
Avg/play5.23.8
1st downs1316
TD40
FG--1
Pts283
Turnovers02
Negative plays55
Negative play yds-18-27
Big plays43
Big play yds10669
Big play avg26.523
Big play yds %41.426
Avg excluding big plays3.33
TOP25:2534:35

The Irish won despite a 20-play and 10-minute time of possession differential, something that speaks largely to the criticality of two Utah turnovers, the Utes special teams gaffes, and the play of Notre Dame’s defense.

For the offense, the total production was wholly uninspiring. The plays, yards and first downs are all season-low values and the 5.2 yards per snap average is the same value posted against Stanford and only slightly behind the performance against the Midshipmen. But the Irish didn’t help their opponent with costly turnovers and managed the game well.

Defensively, this was one of the best outings of the year. Utah’s production in this game (with their averages through the first nine games in parentheses):

  • Yds—265 (421.8)
  • Yds per play—3.8 (6.7)
  • 1st downs—16 (20.3)
  • Touchdowns—0 (5.4)
  • Negative plays—5 (2.8)
  • Big plays—3 (5.4)
  • Big play yds—69 (176.4)
  • Avg per play excluding big gains—3 (4.2)

The Irish held the Utes to well below their accustomed production in virtually every metric including big plays—something critical to their scoring success in 2010. Additionally, the defense held an opponent that entered the contest averaging 41 points per game to only a field goal—the lowest scoring output in 44 games for Utah’s offense.

Over the last eight quarters of play, Notre Dame has held the 11th and 15th ranked scoring offenses to three field goals and a touchdown. If Diaco was challenged after the Navy debacle, he has certainly responded.

Rushing Offense/Defense

The Irish turned the proverbial rushing tables on both sides of the ball.

Rushing Statistics
NDUU
Att2929
Yds12771
Avg/att4.42.4
1st downs45
TD00
Fumbles lost01
Negative runs53
Negative run yds-18-19
Big runs20
Big run yds560
Big run avg28--
Big run yds %44.1--
Avg excluding big runs2.6--

If there was one performance area that contributed to the positive outcome of this game, it was the rushing production. The Irish were able to better Utah’s performance on both sides of the ball.

Notre Dame’s offensive ground production (performance against the Utes/Irish season average/Utah’s defensive average entering the contest):

  • Yds per game—127/114.8/111
  • Yds per carry—4.4/3.8/3.1
  • Yds per carry on first down—4.7/4.5/3.5
  • Yds per carry on open downs—4.4/4.5/3.5

Most of the metrics not referenced above are fairly average, and the Irish production isn’t mind-blowing even compared to Utah’s average defensive numbers. But the performance in the per-carry metrics is substantially above that which the Utes typically allow. Additionally, with sacks removed Notre Dame averaged five yards per carry, well above the 3.7-yard value Utah posted in their first nine games. Head coach Brian Kelly used the run more in this game than he had all year (run/pass split was 59.2/40.8), and the Irish offensive line answered the challenge against a strong front seven.

The story is similar on the other side of the ball, just with more supporting evidence. Notre Dame’s defensive ground production (performance against Utes/Irish season average/Utah’s offensive average entering the contest):

  • Yds per game—71/155.2/175.9
  • Yds per carry—2.4/4.2/5.2
  • Yds per carry on first down—3.1/5/5.4
  • Yds per carry on open downs—3.5/4.5/5
  • Big runs—0/1.8/2.1
  • Touchdowns—0/1.4/2.6
  • % of runs <= 2 yds—44.4/41.2/36.8

The trends are consistent. Not only did the Irish defense perform at a much higher level than they typically do, they held Utah below their season averages in a host of categories. Additionally, the defense allowed a long gain of only eight yards on the ground against a Utah squad that averaged six 10-plus yard runs per game prior to Saturday. Stopping the Utes ground attack was a priority, and the Irish were certainly equal to the task.

Passing Offense/Defense

Quarterback Tommy Rees was solid, if not spectacular. Utah struggled without a running game to lean on.

Passing Statistics
NDUU
Att2040
Comp1324
Yds129194
Comp %6560
Avg/att6.54.9
Avg/comp9.98.1
1st downs710
TD30
Int01
Pass eff168.795.7
Big passes23
Big pass yds5069
Big pass avg2523
Big pass yds %38.835.6
Avg/att excluding big passes4.43.4
Avg/comp excluding big passes7.26
Sacks allowed22

The production won’t blow anyone away—129 yards passing is, by far, a season low—but the efficiency was arguably the best in any game this year.

Rees completed 65 percent of his attempts and posted a passer efficiency of 168.7, second only to Dayne Crist’s 169 mark against Western Michigan. But the freshman signal caller was even better after he settled down.

The first four times Rees dropped back he threw three incomplete passes and was sacked. The next 18 times he was 13 of 17 (76.5 percent) for 129 yards, three touchdowns, and one sack—good for a passer efficiency of 198.4. Additionally, seven of his 13 completions were good for a first down.

An efficient, if not overly effective, rushing attack and manageable play-calling took the game off the young quarterback’s shoulders and allowed him to take shots at opportune times. Rees responded with accurate throws and consistently solid decision-making.

For the Utes air attack, things never got on track. Wynn was able to complete 61.5 percent of his attempts but was largely unable to go downfield with the ball—something Utah was heavily reliant on in their previous winning efforts.

The defense held their opponent to 4.9 yards per attempt and 8.1 yards per completion. The per-attempt value was the best for Notre Dame all season and second-worst for Utah after their outing against TCU, while the per-completion clip was second only to Purdue for the Irish and the worst of the season for the Utes.

Additionally, Notre Dame posted a season-best 95.7 pass efficiency defense and allowed only three explosive gains through the air. Utah averaged 158.6 in the former and had posted 30 pass plays of 20-plus yards entering the game.

Perhaps most impressive, the Irish held a team that averaged nine yards per open down pass attempt and 8.9 yards per first down pass attempt to only 5.8 and 4.2 yards respectively. The strong performance in these situations was closely linked to the exceptional run defense that forced Utah to be  much more pass-heavy than they were leading up to this game.

Drive Offense/Defense

The Irish offense was only able to sustain three drives while the defense played their second best game of the year against a potent offense.

Drive Statistics*
NDUU
Drives109
Avg field posND37UU24
Avg TOP per drive1:583:03
3 and out's22
3 and out's %2022.2
Avg plays per drive4.15.8
Avg 1st downs per drive1.21.2
Avg yds per drive22.420.9
Yds available631680
Yds gained239178
Yds gained %37.926.2

* Values only include meaningful possessions.

The Irish offense had their best starting field position of the year, their own 37-yard line, but struggled to move the ball on nearly every possession. The 37.9 percent of available yards isn’t a season-low, but Rees only led three drives of more than 40 yards and one was aided by two Utah penalties and a 36-yard Jonas Gray scamper.

Not surprisingly, the primary reason for success (and failure) was the running game. Separating the production for the three sustained and seven non-sustained possessions:

  • Sustained—18 plays, 149 yards, 8.3 yards per play, run/pass split of 61.1/38.9, 7.8 yards per rush, first down run/pass split of 80/20, 7.4 yards per first down rush
  • Non-sustained—23 plays, 75 yards, 3.3 yards per play, run/pass split of 34.8/65.2, 2 yards per rush, first down run/pass split of 44.4/55.6, 1.8 yards per first down rush

Defensively, Notre Dame was exceptional. The Irish allowed Utah to gain only 26.2 percent of available yards—the second-best performance of the year, and far below the Utes offensive season average of 53.2 percent.

Additionally, only one meaningful Utah possession, their final drive of the third quarter, gained more than 25 yards. The production from the remaining eight drives: 40 plays, 138 yards, 3.5 yards per play, 3.6 yards per rush attempt, 3.3 yards per pass attempt, 2.6 yards per first down play, and an average of 9.7 yards to go on third down. In other words, the Irish defense dominated the game during meaningful playing time.

Recapping the Game

Beating a top-15 opponent is always an accomplishment, but doing so without more than a third of the starting lineup is a much bigger feat. The Irish entered the game without Crist, wide receivers Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones, tight end Kyle Rudolph, running back Armando Allen, and nose guard Ian Williams—all starters at the beginning of the year. Additionally, linebacker Carlo Calabrese and safety Jamoris Slaughter were available only in emergency situations and outside backer Darius Fleming played 12 snaps before leaving the game with a concussion.

So how did it happen? How was a team that lost to Tulsa and was trounced by Navy able to beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 2006?

They played a more physical, complete game than they had in a long time. The Irish offense didn’t produce at a high level, but they made the most of limited opportunities The special teams chipped in a score, forced a turnover, and shut down the dangerous Shaky Smithson. And the defense dominated the game for the duration of the meaningful minutes.

Additionally, Kelly managed the game very well, stuck with the run to emphasize the need for physicality and to take pressure off Rees, and took (mostly) calculated risks that almost all paid off.

The prime example was Rees’ second touchdown pass. The Irish had momentum and a 14-3 lead. A touchdown following Smithson’s fumble would all but seal the deal. The offense lined up with two tight ends, protected with seven, and rolled the pocket. Only two players were out in the route, Rees had a half-field read with a smash route concept, and the freshman signal caller lobbed a perfectly placed throw to a wide-open Duval Kamara.

The challenge moving forward is to continue to play with the same energy, determination and physicality evident in this contest. Notre Dame needs another win to gain bowl eligibility and Army and USC are both beatable opponents. But with so many starters missing and a freshman quarterback in a pass-happy offense, the Irish cannot overcome lethargic play or self-inflicted mistakes with any regularity.

Furthermore

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