The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-1, #8/#10/#11) host the Denver Pioneers (4-1, #4/#5/#4) this Saturday at Arlotta Stadium, 2:30 pm EST, ESPNU. Of all the games on the schedule, we consider this game the litmus test for the Irish.
The Western Rivalry
The Irish and Pios were for years the distant western outposts for the sport of lacrosse, and they are largely responsible for the incredible growth in the sport in the west. These two teams have enjoyed one of the most intense rivalries in the sport. They have already played ten times this decade, including five overtime games (one triple overtime), a last-second buzzer beater, and two meetings in the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame leads the series 14-9, but Denver has won the last six. Burned into the minds of all Irish fans is the last meeting, a 16-4 pasting in the NCAA quarterfinals led by a 21 of 22 faceoff performance by Denver’s Trevor Baptiste.
Denver is built around Baptiste, widely considered the best college faceoff specialist of all time, who wins draws at over a 75% clip, and who already has a perfect game this season. With him Denver is able to dominate the possession battle. Baptiste makes nearly every goal make it, take it. Their offense is patient and methodical, forcing the opponents to defend long possessions. They win by not giving you the opportunity to score. Denying possession is the best part of their defensive strategy.
The Pios have many offensive threats, the top three of which are Ethan Walker, Austin French, and Colton Jackson. They move the ball quickly and cleanly as is the Denver tradition. Walker should be well known to the Irish as he has five former Culver Academy teammates on the Irish roster. Alex Ready is in goal again for Denver and having a very good year. The defense is much improved from last year, although our viewing of their games suggest a vulnerability to dodgers from X and behind GLE generally, which is an area of strength for Garnsey, Willets and Gleason. Baptiste, as we have said repeatedly, is awesome at faceoff x, and the wing players are of the highest quality, too.
Possessions x Efficiency = Score
Historically, the Irish have relied on defense in this matchup, and other than the quarterfinal mess, the Irish defense has always reliably contained the Denver offense to below their average. There is no reason to expect they won’t be able to do the same tomorrow if asked. The problem, we believe, is that possession issues associated with this strategy have repeatedly left Notre Dame two goals short on the offensive end.
We’ll cut to the chase and simply state this game presents a tough math problem for the Irish. The science of analytics is developing in lacrosse, and we are learning it along with everyone else. The possession game of Denver makes the analysis of this game more data driven then most. If history is any guide, 12 goals wins this game for the Irish. The problem is that the Irish typically score around 10.
While three games played does not give an ideal sample size, Notre Dame’s offense scores at a 35% clip. They are an efficient and effective group. At this rate, the Irish need to find a way to get 34 possessions during the game to accumulate a winning total. With Baptiste dominating the faceoff game, this will be a serious challenge. Last weekend against Maryland the Irish had similar faceoff issues and only got to 26 possessions (which resulted in 10 goals as the data would predict). The math is daunting, but for those who doubt the equation, the Irish losses this decade to Denver are quite neatly explained by this possession problem.
How do the Irish get to 34? The options are limited and difficult, especially as the 2018 version of this team does not have the 10-man ride in its pocket like teams of past years.
- Limit the damage on faceoffs. The Irish don’t necessarily need to win the faceoff battle, they just need not to get creamed. The playbook from the Duke win over Denver is to force Baptiste to win draws back to his defense or isolate him after he get possession and win the ball from him in the open field. Baptiste is a good ball handler for a FOGO, which is a very different statement than saying he’s a good ballhandler. Plus, Sexton and Cohen are considerably faster than he is and will have the opportunity to run him down if (and this is a big if) he can be isolated.
- Cause turnovers. The Irish caused no turnovers against Maryland and the game as a whole was played clean by both teams. This made for nice lacrosse, but it also made it exceedingly difficult for the Irish to catch up. Not causing turnovers is not the same as not playing good defense. It’s the difference between successfully trapping the offense to get the ball back versus frustrating them into eventually taking a bad shot. The Irish defense seems to default to the latter style which amplifies the possession problem by eating clock. Playing aggressively will put a lot of pressure on the goalie, presumably the freshman Schmidt, as Denver moves the ball as well as anyone, and they are coached to exploit aggressiveness. We think Schmidt’s up for the task, but it is a gamble.
- Ground balls. Even Baptiste puts the ball on the ground frequently. The Irish need to convincingly win the ground ball battle, and they absolutely can’t have a game like last week where the faceoff specialists got zero ground balls. We firmly believe the youth lacrosse platitude that ground balls go to the player who wants it more reflects the truth more that it does not. Want the ball!
- Early offense. When Denver has one of its patented 3-minute possessions, the temptation is to set up for a long possession in response to rest the defense and to wait on a great shot instead of taking a good shot. We submit the math doesn’t support a methodical response. Notre Dame eating clock on its own doesn’t give them the chance to gain enough possessions to win. 30-second possessions at 30% is more likely to be successful than 2-minute possessions at 35%. The Irish have been at their best against Denver when they have pushed the offense, recalling specifically the 2016 game at Arlotta when Sexton, Finley, etc. mounted a furious comeback pushing the pace.
- Demand shot clock. Against Maryland, the defense forced a shot clock nine times. This improved pace considerably, even if the Irish were not as effective with these opportunities as we hoped. However, the methodical Denver offense only had three clocks called in its game against North Carolina earlier this week. The reality is that no referee is calling nine shot clocks on a 7-time national champion coach, and there’s no sense whining about it until Notre Dame wins 7 national championships. But Coach Corrigan needs to find a way to turn three shot clocks into six. Encourage the women and children to cover their ears and make it happen
The analytics explain a lot, but there is also no getting around the basic need to simply make plays. Schmidt needs to make timely saves, Travisano and Hyland need to keep Baptiste below his average, and Sexton and Crance need to control the middle of the field. Gleason and Costabile can’t get shut down like they did against Maryland, Wynne and Willets need to score when they get an opportunity, Garnsey has to work his magic and Byrne needs to build on his recent momentum. The team as a whole needs to focus the entire game. Lastly, Giant Freshman ™ need to seize this chance to make their mark.
The comments above are not a criticism of the team, but simply a reflection that there is a peculiar matchup problem when playing Denver. Looking up and down the roster, Notre Dame has the a talent base as good, if not better, than any team including Maryland (Quint Kessenich had a great discussion on this in a podcast released today). The style matchup problem simply means their roster strength needs to step up and make plays.
Most of our concerns are explained above, but we’ll note the issues we’re curious about.
- Goalie: We assume Schmidt will start, but will Corrigan have a quick hook? (obviously, we hope this is a complete non-issue).
- Possessions: Do the Irish get to our magic number of 34?
- Bench length: Coach Corrigan has indicated number of possessions determines depth used. We hope he’ll reconsider and use a broader range of options from the bench, but at a minimum, if they hit our possession target, it should also mean we’ll see some new faces.
- Primary faceoff player: Will Hyland be healthy enough to split time with Travisano, and will Leonard come out as a long pole faceoff option?
As you may note from the tone of this preview, we really want this win. Getting over this hump is an important step towards the final goal of winning a national championship. We believe the player alumni share this desire to win this game if the gamewatch photos that make their way to twitter are any guide, and we think this team can make it happen.
Notre Dame +1.5 (home underdog), o/u 19.5, for those interested in these things.