Eventually Notre Dame will have a game where they aren’t ripping away turnovers, rushing at will for over 300 yards, and dominating on both sides of the ball in the red zone. That day was not last weekend against USC, as Brian Kelly stayed undefeated since dancing with his team to Post Malone and Quavo in the locker room.
This was a thorough start to finish effort by the Irish, taking advantage of turnovers but also generally just outplaying and physically controlling the game. Notre Dame had more scoring opportunities and as they’ve done all season converted them better than their opponents. Depending on how strict you want to be with your garbage time definitions, nearly half this game was played after the outcome was decided. Generally I opt for more versus less data (as long as both teams have in first team players and aren’t clearly changing up strategy). So for this review, garbage time began with yet another long Josh Adams touchdown making it 42-14 in the 3rd Quarter (25.6% of plays then were garbage time).
The chart above is simply domination when it comes to big plays – the Irish offense registered explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards and passes of 16+ yards) on nearly a quarter of its total plays (highest this season outside of Temple). The running game constantly kept USC off balance – in one sequence on Notre Dame’s second touchdown drive there were six straight successful runs by four different runners – and gashed the Trojan line. Brandon Wimbush didn’t complete a ton of passes but those connections counted, with an average of 20.5 yards per successful pass play.
Taking off the statistics glasses for a minute, this felt like a strong performance for Wimbush and the Irish passing game. With every opponent desperately trying to slow down the passing game, Wimbush just has to be decisive and take advantage of one on one matchups when they are available. And while some of the opportunities were just missed against USC, the receivers looked dangerous with the resurgence of Kevin Stepherson (welcome back from Siberia!). A mostly unstoppable run game complemented with big-play passing ability is a formula that has taken recent teams to championship contention (2013 Auburn, 2014 Ohio State). Similar to Brian Kelly’s “just keep pounding on the door and eventually you’ll break through” philosophy about finally winning a big game, I think the passing game has been knocking and kicking for a while now and the door may be on its last hinge.
Defensively, this was Notre Dame’s strongest game of 2017 in terms of havoc rate, fueled by an obliteration of USC’s run game. Before garbage time Mike Elko’s defense stuffed over a third of the Trojans’ carries for zero or negative yardage, and allowed just two runs of 10+ yards. The Irish have benefited from turnover luck this season – for example, in this game recovering both fumbles – but a team creating QB pressure and tackles for losses is going to create more turnover opportunities.
The Irish were successful on two-thirds of their runs against the Trojans, again putting up their best number so far in 2017. The running success and explosiveness when the Irish did connect through the air made the inefficiency of the pass game a moot point, and it’s worth remembering that a decent portion of those successful runs were called passes Wimbush turned into efficient runs. USC’s offense had a better success rate through the air than I would have anticipated, but this was mostly the result of some “bend but don’t break” at its finest. The Trojans could convert some first downs through the air but rarely for big gains, and eventually were derailed either by a key sack, turnover, or in the red zone.
There are just so many things to like about this defense and its turnaround from a year ago, but for a second let’s call out a few:
- Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford recovering from multiple devastating injuries to be among the best in the nation at their positions. You can add Nick Watkins breaking his arm and missing an entire year just to return as a top corner here too.
- Jerry Tillery completely turning around his play, leadership, and effort levels since the last time he played USC and boosting his future pro status as a result
- Guys like Andrew Trumbetti, Nyles Morgan, and Jay Hayes who showed patience amid early career struggles and now are thriving in Mike Elko’s defense
- Young players coming into their own like Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julians Okwara and Love, and not-as-young Nick Coleman settling into his role nicely at free safety.
Somehow in a year’s time the main worries for the Notre Dame defense have changed from things like “will we ever be competent” to “how long will Mike Elko stay, and will anyone leave early for the draft now?” What a world.
Finishing Scoring Opportunities, Field Position, & Turnovers
After another strong effort scoring touchdowns in the red zone (and from just outside it), the Notre Dame offense is now 4th nationally in points per scoring opportunity (inside the opponent 40). The Irish defense isn’t too far behind at #14, allowing just 3.38 points per scoring opportunity. What was an early season trend now appears to have become part of this team’s identity, and I doubt there’s many (if any) other teams in the top-15 on both sides of the ball in that area. (If anyone has lots of time and loves to look at advanced stats profiles, feel free to fact-check that one for a free 18S subscription).
One of the few weak points in Notre Dame’s current advanced stat profile is average starting field position. The Irish had the advantage against USC thanks in large part to the defense’s forced turnovers, but Notre Dame continues to be below average in terms of kickoff returns and coverage.
Fun fact: Mike Elko now has as many games with his defense causing 3+ turnovers in 7 games as Brian Van Gorder put up in his entire 30-game tenure. In addition to a strong ground performance, I also can’t recall a Wimbush pass from Saturday that was in danger of being intercepted. With an offense this efficient and explosive conservatism in throwing the ball away is prudent, and it was also encouraging to see the QB1 avoiding big collisions, with the notable exception of a couple of message-sending hits delivered.
On to paying attention to playoff scenarios (for fans)
In Eric’s recap there was a lot of discussion about Notre Dame’s national ranking and yards per play differential compared to other top teams in the country. The Irish don’t have the strongest differential compared to Alabama, Penn State, Georgia, or Ohio State – yet the advanced stats systems feel they are certainly in that territory. Garbage time plays only a small factor – while the Irish have played almost 25% of their season in garbage time, their YPP margin is +1.84 before garbage time and +1.22 after, so a small overall impact.
Opponent adjustments are the more likely reason – the Irish have played around the 25th toughest schedule so far by ESPN’s FPI and the Sagarin ratings. Whatever system you use agrees that those top teams have faced an easier slate so far. But I think Eric’s original point has merit – Notre Dame is not dominating in terms of moving the ball and stopping other teams as well as some other teams. The early success has been closely tied to things not captured by YPP – dominating the turnover battle and red zone areas. There’s definitely room for improvement in some of those fundamentals, which would only keep driving up the ceiling for this team.
Without looking too far ahead, it’s also worth noting that the Irish rank favorably in some of the less commonly cited statistics ESPN has created that tend to make their way into the mouths of the selection committee. Notre Dame is 5th in Overall FPI, 4th in Game Control, and 12th in Strength of Record.
On to NC State (for the team)
As USC struggled at home against Utah, particularly in the trenches, it become really trendy for posters and beat writers to declare that NC State was in fact a scarier game than the Trojans. And then these same folks had the immense joy after Notre Dame routed USC in relishing their great predictions. But how do the Wolfpack really measure up against USC as an opponent, and where are they vulnerable or a threat to Notre Dame’s now soaring playoff hopes?
Three Reasons for Optimism
#1 The Irish are one of the most balanced teams in the nation: Notre Dame is now ranked #12 in Offensive S&P+ and #18 in Defensive S&P+. Recent history has shown that making the playoff requires this kind of balance, or eventually that weakness will be exposed over the course of the regular season. The other teams that can boast a top-20 offense and defense? Ohio State, Alabama, Penn State, and Georgia.
There’s also enough data now to look at opponent-adjusted efficiency and explosiveness ratings. Notre Dame is also incredibly balanced here – top 10 in offensive Success Rate+ (9th) and IsoPPP+ (4th), and also defensive Success Rate+ (10th) and IsoPPP+ (8th). Ohio State is the only other team that can boast the same accomplishment, and they just happen to be (not without controversy) the top rated team per S&P+.
#2 NC State is better than USC in the trenches, but not quite ELITE (like UGA): The Wolfpack defensive line and front seven are incredibly talented. They rank in the top-25 in almost every category of rushing defense – opponent rushing explosiveness (21st), adjusted line yards allowed (24th), opponent success rate (13th), and stuff rate (11th). Led by Bradley Chubb (who should have just gone pro last year, why do you have to make things difficult), the defensive line is 3rd in havoc rate. But zoom out a little bit and NC State is just 45th in Rushing S&P+, and their pass rushing stats (75th in adjusted sack rate) aren’t great. What gives?
The answer to this apparent contradiction is our old friend opponent adjustments. The Pack have feasted on some truly awful run offenses – South Carolina (102nd in Rushing S&P+), Marshall (117th), Furman (FCS), and Syracuse (103rd) comprise half their games. In the other contests against formidable rushing attacks, Pittsburgh (3.36 YPC) was the only shutdown effort.
Florida State, maybe the closest analog in terms of talent to ND, ran for 5.68 yards per carry. Louisville, who has the blessing and curse combo of Lamar Jackson and a poor offensive line, ran for 5.6 yards per pop. I don’t see the Irish running for 300+ yards again, although everyone keeps saying that and being proven wrong. But I also don’t see anything that would make me worry about a UGA-like disruption to the Notre Dame run game.
#3 Big plays should still come: The Achilles heel of NC State’s defense so far has been giving up explosive plays in the passing game and an inability to get off the field on passing downs. The Pack are just 68th in Passing Downs S&P+, and 76th in passing explosiveness (IsoPPP) allowed. For as talented and experienced as the front seven are, Dave Doeren’s secondary skews far younger and its showing a bit early this season.
Chip Long called a terrific game against USC, and the upside of blowing out the Trojans is that there still may be plenty left in the bye week bag of tricks. This all bodes well for Wimbush connecting on some deep balls to Stepherson or St. Brown, in addition to the now mandatory long Adams touchdown.
Three reasons to worry:
#1 NC State plays mistake-free football: As mentioned above, the Irish defense has thrived on takeaways, and as a team are #4 nationally in turnover margin per game. The bad news is that this weekend they are facing an NC State offense that has been the best in the country at protecting the football, with just three fumbles lost and zero interceptions in seven games.
#2 A balanced offense with a hyper-efficient passing attack: Offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz and NC State QB Ryan Finley are a scary combination. The Wolfpack use a lot of motion, formations, screens, and short passes to constantly keep defenses off balance. They move ninth-year senior Jaylen Samuels all over the place – he’s their leading receiver and third leading rusher – and are 19th in Passing S&P+ with the 9th best success rate in FBS. Finley doesn’t air it out downfield a ton, and the Pack aren’t too explosive through the air, but have the opposite profile on the ground. Rushing the team is just average in efficiency, but pretty explosive at 34th in Rushing IsoPPP. The offensive line hasn’t been great preventing havoc in the run game (94th in stuff rate) but has been great giving Finley time to throw. (17th in adjusted sack rate).
#3 A trend of jumping out to early leads: By quarter, the NC State offense has been a little Jekyll and Hyde. Some of the variance is probably small sample size weirdness, but by quarter their offensive ranks trend from 20th in Q1, 2nd in Q2, 101st in Q3, and 101st in Q4. The defense has the opposite trend, going from 63rd and 117th in the 1st and 2nd quarter to then tightening up nicely to 69th in the third and 2nd in the fourth quarter.
If this trend continues, and maybe turnover luck bounces the wrong way for the first time this season, the Irish could find themselves trailing early against a defense that tends to get better as the game goes on. In Elko and Balis I trust, but this edition of the Fighting Irish has also trailed in just 7% of their plays this season, and we don’t quite know how they would react to an early deficit.