Oct 23, 2012

Notre Dame Meets Its Maker...Or Does It?

            I’m excited…..No, that’s not the right word.  I get excited for a good meal, the rare nights I can fall asleep early, and when my dog doesn’t steal my seat on the couch when I get up to go to the bathroom.  So, no, excited is not the right word.  I sat here for a few moments trying to think of what the correct word would be, and it hasn’t come.  Needless to say, Saturday night means a lot to me. 

            The experts, though, have me nervous.  Since it became official that the Catholics trump the Mormons for another year last Saturday evening and this week’s ND/Oklahoma game became a battle of top 10 teams, all I’ve heard is why the Irish are going to get slaughtered.  The refrains from the experts are typical:  Notre Dame hasn’t played anyone yet (aside:  Yet they love Alabama and Oregon???  Who exactly have those guys played?), our offense stinks (no aside, we haven’t been great), and Oklahoma’s the first real offense we’ve played, and they’re going to take the top off of us.  It’s tough to ignore.  These same comments have been echoed everywhere.  When our best line of media defense is an octogenarian with a lisp and a bias so pungent that I’m convinced I now own a 4D television (note:  I don’t even own a 3D television), my degree of anxiety increases. 

            There are many, many good websites that will provide a breakdown of the game.  They’ll talk about the key match-ups individually, the psychology, Big Game Bob, Big Game Bob at home, ND’s unsettled QB situation, why a Sooner would beat an Irishman in a drinking contest, and who wears a visor better: BK versus Bob, I’m not going to engage in that.  We (pronounced: “me’) here at JLD have decided to look at the statistics to find out exactly what type of butt kicking I should expect on Saturday. 

            So, without further unnecessary lead-in, let’s explore some statistical areas that seem important to this match-up:


            I’ve found this one to be the most troubling.  Even granting that the Sooners are better than some of the other offenses we’ve faced, what data do we have to back up the notion that ND will inevitably be lit up?  Notre Dame’s points allowed per game is second in the nation.  We’ve yet to allow a rushing touchdown, and each of these points have been espoused by anyone feigning to cover college football.  The prevailing thought among the experts is that we’re susceptible to the big play and OU will capitalize, but is that true?  First, let’s look just at long plays from scrimmage allowed by ND on a game-by-game basis.  For purposes of this chart, I’m defining a long play as 25 yards or more from scrimmage on any given play.  These are the “chunk” yardage plays Oklahoma is expected to get:

Table 1:
Notre Dame Defense:  Plays of 25+ Yards/TD’s Allowed 10+ Yards
Rushes 25+ Yards:
Passes 25+ Yards:
TD’s 10+ Yards:
1 (25)
3 (41, 38, 25)
1 (pass, 25)
1 (27)
1 (pass 15)
Michigan State
1 (31)
2 (28, 26)
2 (25, 31)
6 (41, 38, 28, 27, 26, 25)
2 (Pass; 25, 15)
·      Number in parentheses indicates number of yards gained

Even a quick look indicates that Notre Dame has not been susceptible to the big play this season.  Navy accounts for exactly half of all plays 25+ yards that ND has allowed.  That game, by the way, Notre Dame won 52-10.  We can summarize as follows:

Longest Rushing Play of the Year:  31 yards (Michigan).  Notre Dame is tied for 9th in the nation with the longest run surrendered being somewhere between 30-40 yards.

Longest Passing Play of the Year:  41 yards (Navy).  Notre Dame is 2nd in the nation having allowed only 2 passing plays over 30 yards.  The only team above them, LSU (1 play allowed), permitted that pass to go more than 80 yards.  ND is tied with 8 other teams for first in the nation having allowed just 1 passing play of 40 or more yards. 

Since the Dublin game, Michigan’s 31 yard rush is the only 30+ yard play that the Notre Dame defense has surrendered.

The longest touchdown surrendered:  25 yards.  Oklahoma’s got their work cut out for them if they intend to take ND’s head off.

Much of the conversation has been about how Oklahoma possesses a more potent vertical passing game than the Irish have experienced.  The numbers really don’t back this up.  In FBS competition, OU ranks 89th in passing plays going for more than 20 yards.  OU’s notched 16 such plays in  5 games (Game Average:  3.2 passes per game).  Notre Dame has notched 25 such plays in 7 games (Game Average:  3.57 passes per game).  For those who may be numbers impaired, Notre Dame averages more passing plays of 20+ yards a game than Oklahoma in FBS competition.  So, do you think ND has a great vertical passing game?  Yeah, neither do I…

Some of the claims about OU’s potent offense also involve their running game and with good reason.  JUCO transfer Damien Williams is averaging 7.46 yards a carry.  Notre Dame’s already gone up against some formidable running backs:  Stepfan Taylor, Le’Veon Bell, and ummm…Navy’s primary means of attack.  While we could address Notre Dame’s rush defense (Top 25 by all statistical measures), the main argument for Oklahoma has been their big play ability.  In terms of absolute numbers, neither Notre Dame nor Oklahoma have been among the elite in terms of big plays.  Let’s compare the two on a per game basis. 

Table 2:
Notre Dame/Oklahoma Plays of 10+ Yards from Scrimmage (FBS Only)
Plays 10+
Plays 20+
Plays 30+
% of 10+ going 20+
% of 20+ going 30+

            Absolute numbers didn’t make sense in the illustration above given that ND’s played 2 more FBS games than OU.  However, if we do look at absolute numbers as opposed to game averages, Oklahoma’s had 95 plays from scrimmage gaining at least 10 yards.  Notre Dame’s had 92.  Oklahoma’s had 22 plays go for at least 20 yards, 16 of which we previously established were passing plays.  That means that Oklahoma has exactly 6 rushes of 20+ yards.  Notre Dame?  12.  While Oklahoma averages an impressive 6 more plays a game of 10+ yards than the Fighting BK’s, Notre Dame is actually the more likely of the two to have a chunk play of 20-30 yards, and they’re quite similar in terms of 30+ yard plays.  While that 10+ yard play per game difference OU supports is important to moving the chains, it does not necessarily equate to touchdowns.  The next sub-set of statistics really elaborate on the story of why OU appears to be more potent offensively than ND and why there is such a drastic scoring difference.


Despite the lack of difference in big play ability to this point, there has been a distinct and not-so-subtle difference in scoring between ND and Oklahoma.  Blame it on the Big 12 defenses.  Blame it on a difference in quarterback play.  Blame it on the rain.  What might be the reason for this distinct difference?  There’s almost no question that the answer lies in red zone efficiency.

Table 3:
Offensive Red Zone Efficiency Numbers
Attempts Per Game:
Scoring Percentage:
Touchdown Percentage:
76.47 (89th)
47.06 (106th)
96.97 (T-1st)
75.76 (9th)
·      Number in parentheses represents national ranking in category

Not only does Oklahoma get to the red zone a little more frequently than Notre Dame, but they are starkly more efficient once they enter that zone.  For two teams that seem to have similar “big play” potential, it’s Oklahoma’s dominance in red zone offense that has led to so many more scores.  Despite the expert analysis, if you combine Oklahoma’s lack of a substantial number of big plays combined with their red zone efficiency, you paint the picture of an effective, not explosive offense. I’m not trying to sell the Sooners short.  They’re clearly a devastating offense but not in the manner that the experts have painted them.  There is, however, the other side to the equation.   Notre Dame’s allowed exactly 2 touchdowns of more than 10 yards and only 1 touchdown from outside the red zone, meaning, Notre Dame’s red zone defense will  play a central part in the scoring results on Saturday.

Table 4:
Defensive Red Zone Efficiency Numbers
Attempts Per Game:
Scoring Percentage:
Touchdown Percentage:
52.63 (3rd)
21.05 (1st)
72.73 (20th)
54.55 (45th)
·      Number in parentheses represents national ranking in category

Notre Dame’s defense has been astonishingly good at not allowing the touchdown when an offense makes its way to the red zone.  Only 4 times in 19 total attempts has a team which reached Notre Dame’s 20 yard line found a way to make it that final bit and notch a touchdown.  The scoring percentage has certainly been aided by missed field goals (as opposed to blocks),  but the fact remains:  As good as Oklahoma has been at scoring once in the red zone, Notre Dame has been every bit as good at preventing scoring.  Call it luck.  Call it inspiration.  Call it genius. 

The lynch pin of Notre Dame’s defensive strategy this year has been forcing teams to work for every last yard (See:  The Stanford game, regardless of your interpretation of the final play).  They don’t allow big plays, and much like a Catholic on his wedding night, they stiffen in the red zone. 

All of this is not to suggest or predict that Notre Dame will win on Saturday night.  Norman, OK is the most formidable city named Norman I’m aware of.  Moreover, Oklahoma is a very, very good team that many predicted might make the National Title Game this year.  However, before Brian Kelly just turns the plane around and forfeits, perhaps these numbers can provide a concrete reason that this is not a runaway in the making.  Sure, people will point to the home field advantage (it’s a big one), the quarterback differential (it’s a big one), or the battle for turnover supremacy (it’s always, regardless of opponent, a big one).  But for those thinking that OU is an offensive juggernaut destined to rip out the heart of ND Nation, let me encourage you to read the numbers above, take a deep breath, and remember that Las Vegas does not determine the outcome of (most) sporting events. 

My prediction:  Whichever team is more efficient in the red zone will win.  This game will not be decided by the big plays everyone is expecting to rain down upon Notre Dame on Saturday night.

- Moons

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