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Advanced Stats Breakdown: Irish Regular Season Offense

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The Irish end 2015 as one of the nation's most explosive, balanced, and efficient teams, even with season-ending injuries to four key players.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the conclusion of the regular season, taking a look back at how the advanced stats view Notre Dame's offensive performance. Most stats come from the great work of Bill Connelly and the Football Study Hall team and Brian Freameau's Efficiency Index.

Running the Ball

Irish Rushing Offense

Avg.

Rk

Nat'l Avg.

Rushing S&P+

128.7

3

100.0

Rushing Success Rate

45.8%

34

42.3%

Rushing IsoPPP

1.29

7

1.08

Adj. Line Yards

125.8

2

100.0

Opportunity Rate

46.1%

4

39.1%

Power Success Rate

66.7%

59

66.4%

Stuff Rate

21.1%

86

19.5%

You can make a strong, objective argument that the Notre Dame running game was the best in the nation. In Rushing S&P+ Notre Dame trailed only Texas Tech and Bowling Green - two offenses that are extremely pass-heavy and then extremely efficient running the ball on the rare occasions they do. The competition looking at other balanced offenses without extreme run/pass splits? Oregon, LSU, and Ohio State.

One interesting aspect was the somewhat "feast or famine" nature of the running game - overall it was much more feasting, but ranking 86th in stuff rate is pretty confusing for a great offensive line. What kept the offensive from a higher efficiency rating was a pretty significant number of negative runs - getting stuffed on first down often creates passing downs or puts the bar much higher for success running on second down - on 2nd and 10 you need 7 yards to be successful, on 2nd and 4 you only need 3 yards.


Notre Dame is 7th in rushing explosiveness, and I think it's worth taking a minute to appreciate it. Remember when the longest rush of the Charlie Weis era was a Brady Quinn scramble? Or when a lot of discussion was about how many times Armando Allen had been *this* close to breaking free? We've come a long way.

The offensive line has been a finalist for the first ever Joe Moore award, given to the best blocking unit in the nation, and advanced stats back up their production. The Irish were 2nd in adjusted line yards and fourth in opportunity rate, which attempt to separate rushing yards between progress gained by the offensive line and runners. Overall performance was very consistent over the course of the season - below you can see the success rate and yards per carry numbers by game, with opponent Rushing S&P+ ranks in parentheses. Even against the best rushing defenses the Irish faced (Clemson, Boston College, and Temple) they averaged close to four yards per carry, and Notre Dame gashed some mediocre defenses against USC and Stanford.

Rushing Offense

Individual Rushing Stats

Player

Pos.

Ht, Wt

Year

Rushes

Yards

TD

Yards/
Carry

Hlt Yds/
Opp.

Opp.
Rate

Fumbles
(Lost)

C.J. Prosise

RB

6'1, 220

SR

160

1048

11

6.6

6.9

48.1%

5 (2)

Josh Adams

RB

6'1, 212

FR

102

760

5

7.5

8.5

46.1%

2 (1)

DeShone Kizer

QB

6'4, 230

SO

102

611

9

6.0

5.6

46.1%

4 (1)

Dexter Williams

RB

5'11, 200

FR

19

79

1

4.2

2.0

42.1%

0 (0)

Malik Zaire

QB

6'0, 222

JR

17

118

0

6.9

8.2

47.1%

0 (0)

Brandon Wimbush

QB

6'1, 216

FR

6

108

1

18.0

19.8

66.7%

1 (1)

Amir Carlisle

WR

5'10, 195

SR

5

18

0

3.6

2.7

20.0%

0 (0)

Torii Hunter Jr.

WR

6'0, 195

JR

5

16

0

3.2

2.4

20.0%

1 (1)

Tarean Folston

RB

5'9, 214

JR

3

19

0

6.3

7.5

33.3%

0 (0)

Just as impressive as the offensive line's success has been the work of Notre Dame's running backs and DeShone Kizer. Once they've been given some open field to work with, the highlight yards per opportunity here are, and I use this word with caution, ELITE. For comparison's sake, each of the top three rushers dramatically surpassed last year's numbers from Tarean Folston (3.5), Everett Golson (5.3), and Cam McDaniel (3.6).

Prosise was a revelation at running back, and it's been an unexpected, awesome bonus that Josh Adams has breakaway speed as a true freshman. While Kizer may have a little less elusiveness and straight line speed than Zaire, he still provided a very dangerous running threat and displayed great patience and awareness, and occasionally decided to just run over people.

Past, Present, & Future:

  • Each of those top rushers can return next year, including Tarean Folston and Malik Zaire. Both quarterbacks should continue to improve running the zone read, and CJ Prosise and Josh Adams will benefit from more seasoning. A running back position that had limited depth this year could include Folston/Prosise/Adams/Dexter Wililams, and that's an extremely exciting potential rotation that could lead to fresh legs and less hits taken by each back.
  • It will be a tall task to replace Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, but the depth chart is stacked with talent to compete for those jobs. Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, Tristen Hoge, and Hunter Bivin each have been praised by the coaching staff and were highly coveted recruits. It would be crazy to think Notre Dame could lose a likely top-10 draft pick and captain that will be a mid-round pick and improve, but sustaining this level of play seems like a solid goal, as McGlinchey, Elmer, and Nelson should continue to improve.
  • The primary areas for improvement are limiting the negative plays and improving in power situations - a team this good at running the ball and with such a strong offensive line should be better than average running at the goal line or in 3rd/4th and short. This is interrelated with the red-zone scoring issues (more to come there), but should be diagnosed in the offseason. With the number of quality offensive linemen Notre Dame has, should they consider more heavy formations utilizing them instead of three tight ends? Or go the opposite direction, spreading the field to diagnose mismatches and taking advantage of opponent's respecting the Irish passing game and talent at receiver?

Passing the Ball

Passing

Irish Passing Offense

Avg.

Rk

Nat'l Avg.

Passing S&P+

130.9

8

100.0

Passing Success Rate

45.9%

24

40.3%

Passing IsoPPP

1.59

31

1.48

Adj. Sack Rate

109.7

52

100

While not quite as spectacular as the running game, the Irish passing attack has still been excellent, even with a lack of experience at quarterback. Opponent-adjusted numbers look even more favorably on the passing games explosiveness and efficiency, and I think one of the more encouraging things to see was how well Zaire and Kizer played under the spotlight. Zaire delivered a masterful performance slicing and dicing Texas in a national spotlight game and first start at Notre Dame Stadium, and DeShone Kizer came very close to forcing overtime in a hurricane against the future #1 seed in the playoff.  He also led final drive comebacks at UVA and Temple, and played extremely well against USC and Stanford. All of this from the quarterback that everyone was least excited about of the four options this past spring - what a remarkable year.

Individual Passing Stats

Player

Ht, Wt

Year

Comp

Att

Yards

TD

INT

Comp
Rate

Sacks

Sack Rate

Yards/
Att.

DeShone Kizer

6'4, 230

SO

188

297

2596

19

9

63.3%

19

6.0%

7.9

Malik Zaire

6'0, 222

JR

26

40

428

4

0

65.0%

2

4.8%

9.8

Brandon Wimbush

6'1, 216

FR

3

5

17

0

0

60.0%

1

16.7%

0.8

Individual Receiving Stats

Player

Pos.

Ht, Wt

Year

Targets

Catches

Yards

TD

Yds/
Catch

Yds/
Target

Catch Rate

Target
Rate

Will Fuller

WR

6'0, 184

JR

87

56

1145

13

20.5

13.2

64.4%

26.4%

Chris Brown

WR

6'1, 195

SR

70

44

562

3

12.8

8.0

62.9%

21.2%

Amir Carlisle

WR

5'10, 195

SR

40

29

337

1

11.6

8.4

72.5%

12.1%

C.J. Prosise

RB

6'1, 220

SR

35

27

325

1

12.0

9.3

77.1%

10.6%

Torii Hunter Jr.

WR

6'0, 195

JR

35

24

311

2

13.0

8.9

68.6%

10.6%

Corey Robinson

WR

6'4, 215

JR

25

13

159

1

12.2

6.4

52.0%

7.6%

Alize Jones

TE

6'4, 240

FR

15

11

166

0

15.1

11.1

73.3%

4.5%

Nic Weishar

TE

6'4, 241

SO

8

3

19

0

6.3

2.4

37.5%

2.4%

Josh Adams

RB

6'1, 212

FR

7

7

42

1

6.0

6.0

100.0%

2.1%

Durham Smythe

TE

6'4, 245

JR

3

2

13

1

6.5

4.3

66.7%

0.9%

Tyler Luatua

TE

6'2, 255

SO

2

0

0

0

0.0

0.0

0.0%

0.6%

Equanimeous St. Brown

WR

6'4, 205

FR

1

1

8

0

8.0

8.0

100.0%

0.3%

Chase Hounshell

TE

6'4, 255

SR

1

1

6

0

6.0

6.0

100.0%

0.3%

Will Fuller averaged almost 21 yards a catch and over a touchdown a game, and while we all know where he can improve, how much fun is it every time you see a long pass go up in his direction? Chris Brown emerged as the clear second option at receiver the Irish were looking for, and Amir Carlisle/Torii Hunter Jr. formed a formidable slot combination. The biggest disappointment here was likely the lack of involvement in the passing game from the tight end position, where the rotation was five-deep but only included less than 20 catches from the entire group.

The consistency here was again remarkable - Notre Dame averaged very close to 8 yards per pass play, with the only real outliers on the season coming from the shredding of Texas in the opening game and the strange struggles against Wake Forest. Note that I've measured yardage here not in yards per pass attempt but yards per pass play, so this includes sacks but not scrambles (which are counted as runs). Defensive Passing S&P+ ranks are in parentheses after opponents:

Passing Offense

Past/Present/Future:

  • Can the combination of the offensive line / quarterback combine to decrease opponent sack rates? I think there's a strong belief from most fans that with more experience, Kizer and/or Zaire will be able to make quicker decisions and improve their pocket presence enough to offset losing Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Maybe some practice with George Whitfield's broomsticks?
  • This offseason we've seen how difficult managing QB competitions can be - Urban Meyer struggled mightily trying to figure out the right way to use Cardale Jones and JT Barrett, and as late as the Ole Miss game Nick Saban was starting Cooper Bateman. The talk of the spring and fall will be of potential QB competition and rotations, and it will be a challenge for the coaching staff managing that position and setting expectations with two talented options who both believe they're the best player to lead this team in 2016.
  • While there may be some attrition with the NFL draft, most of the critical elements of this passing attack return. Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle's consistency will be missed, but the potential beneficiaries like CJ Sanders, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Alize Jones are all oozing with talent. A young tight end corps gained a lot of experience this year and should improve across the board in blocking and as receiving threats.

Big Picture:

Past/Present/Future: The one area to improve upon is obvious - turning the ability to move the ball successfully into more points. In particular red zone success was a struggle in Notre Dame's last two games, and the Irish finished 91st nationally finishing just 56% of red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It's been an issue in the past, and will continue to be a storyline as the Irish settle for field goals. I think some of it is attributable to a young quarterback learning how to deal with a smaller field, and some reflection might be due for play-calling as well.

It's really the only area to nitpick with an offense that's been extremely successful despite dealing with a lot of adversity, and for comparison's sake Alabama and their esteemed program faced similar issues (102nd converting TD's on 53.6% of red zone trips). But it feels particularly painful since those issues were so clear in Notre Dame's close losses, where turnovers in the red zone and settling for field goals changed the complexion of each game.

Even with Notre Dame's turnovers and settling for field goals in the red zone, the Irish still finished 13th in points per offensive possession thanks to many explosive plays and scores that came from outside the red zone. Looking at Offensive FEI Ratings, there's again remarkable consistency:

  • 13th in Offensive First Down Rate (% drives ending >1 first down or touchdown)
  • 7th in Offensive Available Yards (% of yards you gain compared to how many you need for a TD)
  • 3rd in Explosive Drive Rate (% of offensive drives averaging >10 yard per play)
  • 6th in Value Drive Rate (% of offensive drives starting at least 50 yards from the end zone that reach the opponent 30 yard line)

The only area of opportunity is methodical drive rate (% of drives lasting 10 plays), but part of that is a trade-off to how explosive the Irish were (explosive drives and methodical drives are basically mutually exclusive without penalties). It's two different paths to success - for contrast's sake, Stanford was 26th in explosive drive rate but 2nd in methodical drive rate, and I think both team's offensive successes are pretty comparable.

A Championship-Level Offense

Top 8 Teams (Playoff Committee Rankings) and Offensive Ranks:

Team

CFP Rank

Offense S&P+

Success Rate+

IsoPPP+

Offensive FEI Rank

Clemson

1

10

8

5

12

Alabama

2

27

15

26

29

Michigan State

3

26

24

72

23

Oklahoma

4

3

17

8

15

Iowa

5

48

36

98

31

Stanford

6

7

7

20

4

Ohio State

7

14

6

17

26

Notre Dame

8

6

4

4

6

What's striking about the Notre Dame offense is the balance - both the ability to run/pass and be both explosive and efficient. The Irish are the only near-playoff team FEI and S&P+ agree are a top-6 offense, and their opponent-adjusted explosiveness and efficiency numbers are both top 5 in the nation. This has to be extremely validating for the Irish offense and Brian Kelly - over time I think a lot of critics brought up that their idea of "Brian Kelly's offense" would never be good enough to win a title. This is a championship caliber offense, and even with a season-ending injury and transfer each at quarterback and running back, the fullest realization of what Kelly would like to do offensively. It feels like this is the blueprint the Sanford/Kelly/Denbrock trio will try to replicate and tweak to optimize over the next few seasons together.

The pieces are there for continued success - I don't believe that any program has matched Notre Dame's recruiting efforts on the offensive line, and the Irish have three talented dual-threat quarterbacks on the roster that seem to be excellent fits for what the offensive coaching staff wants to do. Talent remains high at skill positions, and greater experience and continuity at quarterback may let the team continue to develop more wrinkles, like incorporating pace (the Irish were 110th in adjusted pace) and more personnel groupings to take advantage of depth (furiously knocking on wood) at running back, wide receiver, offensive line, and tight end.