The Irish outplayed Miami in the traditional phases of the game, but special teams blunders let the Hurricanes almost steal a win anyway. Breaking down an overall encouraging performance for Notre Dame with the five factors that lead to winning football games.
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Let’s talk about the good news first – in the “traditional” phases of the game, Notre Dame thoroughly outplayed the Hurricanes. Outgaining Miami by 2.21 YPP is significant – using a year of historical data, teams that had a margin of +2 to +3 YPP won 95% of games with an average margin of +23 points. Saturday’s game featured the lowest YPP output offensively for the Canes this season and the 2nd worst YPP allowed defensively.
So just in looking at the box score, you’d expect to see a decent cushion for the Irish. Unfortunately due to the disastrous special teams performance, that wasn’t the case. Without rehashing the gory details, the unit managed to gift Miami three offensive possessions in a row in the 2nd quarter and the go-ahead touchdown in the 4th.
Defensively, this was a performance that was the polar-opposite of a typical Brian Van Gorder era game. In four games with BVG at the helm, the defense had 17 tackles for a loss. On Saturday they had 12, with five sacks of Brad Kaaya for good measure. Jarron Jones played like man possessed against a woeful Miami offensive line. And while a lot of my predictions for this year have turned out to be unthinkably wrong, the assertion that this linebacking group would be better than last seasons’ (even with Jaylon) is at the very least a strong debate (if not correct).
Another sign that things have changed defensively has been the lack of back-breaking gains surrended by the Irish defense. The Miami offense had been explosive in both the passing and running game entering this one, and the Notre Dame defense forced sustained drives that the Hurricanes offensive line couldn’t hold together for the most part.
Across the Notre Dame internets I’ve seen a decent amount of negativity about the offense despite the win. And while the Hurricanes defense is trending downward, likely due to injuries and increased level of competition, 30 points on the 26th ranked defense in S&P+ is very solid. And those 30 points came even with a limited number of possessions thanks to the special teams blunders.
Seven of the 11 Irish possessions generated scoring opportunities (inside the Miami 40). Finishing those drives was hit and miss – settling for three field goals isn’t ideal, and the failed 4th down screen pass to CJ Sanders was nauseating. But this looked to be a bad matchup for the ND offense against a team with a very disruptive defensive line, and the Irish ran the ball for 5.74 yards per carry on Miami and gave up just one sack.
Taking out the NC State hurricane game, the Notre Dame offense is averaging 6.42 yard per play, a number that would rank 24th in FBS – just ahead of West Virginia, FSU, and Michigan. You can make the argument that the offense as a whole has disappointed given the overall level of talent, but the unit certainly isn’t average or bad as I’ve seen claimed. In the past five seasons under Brian Kelly (going from 2015 to 2011) the Irish have finished 8th, 20th, 27th, 7th, and 20th in Offensive S&P+, so while critics may argue with play-calling and scheme, the results have been pretty consistently positive.
The Hurricanes offensive success in 2016 has been driven more by explosiveness than efficiency, but the performance by the Irish defense in this one was still impressive. The Canes were held to just a 13.8% success rate running the ball, with the Irish defensive line collapsing holes before Miami’s speedy backs had any room to work with.
Taking out sack yardage, the Hurricanes were held to 55 yards rushing on 29 carries (1.9 YPC). The Notre Dame defense set the tone on first down, holding 13 carries to a total of 25 yards. This dominance forced one and sometimes two passing downs and allowed the Irish to thoroughly win the leverage game below.
On offense, the third down struggles for ND have been well-documented, but they came through on Saturday with a 50% conversion rate, their highest of the year. Helpful to that effort was avoiding negative plays against a Miami team that had led the nation in TFL – the average 3rd down distance to go was 5.5 yards.
Average Starting Field Position
Notre Dame: Irish 36
Miami: Canes 28
This win is in name only, as it doesn’t take into account the CJ Sanders muffed punt turned touchdown (which I’d like to count as a drive starting in the ND endzone, but won’t for consistency with S&P+’s sake). The Irish were bolstered by the defensive performance in starting field position – Cole Luke’s interception allowed a drive to start on the Miami 13, and they added four more three and outs for good measure.
Speaking of special teams, the Justin Yoon concern-o-meter is back to reading perfect zero after a 3-for-3 performance. The punt team, however, had another really bad day – a partially blocked punt went just 23 yards, and a 52-yarder in the 4th quarter was returned 30 yards to flip the field. Notre Dame entered the game ranked 123rd in FEI’s punt efficiency, and after this performance has to be close to last in FBS (a punt blocked / returned for a TD weighs heavily here).
After a strong start to the season, the Irish are slowly backtracking in their ability to finish scoring opportunities inside the 40 and the red zone. After beginning the season in the top 10 nationally, the Notre Dame offense now ranks 48th in finishing drives, with 4.94 points per drive inside the 40. Saturday’s performance was aided by Josh Adams’ 41-yard touchdown run, which counts as a converted scoring opportunity.
Notre Dame has actually run the ball well in power run situations (80% power run success rate), which should in theory be helpful in extending these drives and converting near the goal line. But the offense has gone more pass-heavy in the red zone in recent weeks – for example, Notre Dame passed on their first seven plays in the red zone plays against Miami. Those passing plays resulted in two touchdowns but also five incompletions that led to twice settling for field goals.
The Notre Dame offense didn’t turn the ball over, but the punt return issues both count as fumbles and led to 14 Miami points. Cole Luke’s interception was a thing of beauty, and a sign of progress for a secondary that hasn’t been around the ball enough. The Irish had 8 pass break ups against the Hurricanes after averaging 2.7 per game through the first seven games. Over time around 20-25% of PBU’s are intercepted, so if the Notre Dame defense can continue to get their hands on more passes, the Irish might start generating more turnovers for the first time in a long time.