What is the spread? What defines a spread offense? People have been arguing about this for years. For purposes of this article let's just say that a spread is an offense that stretches the field with 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets, and/or utilizes a quick passing game out of shotgun, and/or uses up-tempo, and/or relies on the quarterback to be an integral part of the rushing attack. You know, some mix of those things.
Okay, have you ever watched a game--usually in the Big 12 or Pac-12--and thought to yourself, "These defenses are terrible and can't stop anybody"? I see these statements all the time.
I've had this idea kicking around my head for a while, going back a couple years, and wondering about how Notre Dame would fare defensively if the program was suddenly plopped into, say, the Pac-12 South. The 2013 USC-ASU game (you know, the one where they left Kiffin at the airport) made me think of it again when the Sun Devils obliterated Trojan defensive records to the tune of 612 yards, 62 points, and 8.7 yards-per-play.
Then last year, the Irish faced an explosive North Carolina offense prior to the injuries devastating the program and we coughed up 30 first downs, 510 yards, and 6.14 yards-per-play. Perhaps quite fairly that game has been targeted as a huge blemish for new DC Brian VanGorder, but at the same time, that same Tar Heel team also dropped nearly 500 yards, 35 points, and 6.05 YPP on Clemson and the Tigers were the top ranked defense in the country for 2014.
So we kind of know that spread offenses, like any offense, can be inconsistent but we also know they've raised the ceiling for production and the ability to put a hurtin' on even the best defenses. A couple questions now:
1) Has Notre Dame been exposed to enough of these highly productive spread offenses?
2) Are Irish fans willing to accept a good defense in South Bend could give up a lot of points to a dangerous spread team?
Let's try to chronicle Notre Dame's rivals first and see how spread-y things have been since 2008:
Purdue- Mostly, yes
Michigan State- No
Pitt- One year under Graham, otherwise no
Michigan- Mostly spread the whole time
Stanford- Child, please
Boston College- Negative
That's a lot of games against non-spread teams, and Purdue's offense has not been good so no need to waste time on them. Michigan had Rich Rod for a few years and he put up YPP averages of 5.54, 6.06, and 6.57 against Notre Dame. Hoke eventually messed it all up but the Wolverines got in a 9.04 (oof) in 2011 and 6.39 in 2013. The Irish played really well in the 2012 and 2014 Michigan games but otherwise really struggled in the series.
Now, let's look at the Top 40 FEI (and those who were close) offenses Notre Dame has faced in this time frame:
2008- North Carolina (35th)
2009- UConn (20th)
Nevada finished at 50th, and Washington finished at 41st.
2010- Tulsa (38th)
2011- Air Force (32nd), Wake Forest (36th)
Florida State finished at 54th, and USF finished at 56th.
2012- Oklahoma (4th), Alabama (5th)
Miami finished at 47th and BYU finished at 59th.
2013- Oklahoma (23rd), Arizona State (6th)
BYU finished at 48th, Temple finished at 56th, and Air Force finished at 57th.
2014- North Carolina (30th), FSU (8th), ASU (16th)
LSU finished at 43rd, and Louisville finished at 51st.
The Top 40 spread teams out of that list include: Tulsa, Wake Forest, Oklahoma (2x), Arizona State (2x), and North Carolina. I don't know how much we can take away from these games by breaking down the defensive stats but it is interesting that Notre Dame went 4-3 against those teams and they were all close games.
Either way, the Irish have not been exposed to many good spread teams although this seems to be slowly changing, especially with the ACC agreement coming into focus. Surely, facing a spread Purdue team is a whole lot easier than a Jacoby Brissett-led NC State-type of offense.
Perhaps even worse, the exposure to dual-threat spread quarterbacks in good offenses over 7 seasons has basically been limited to Denard (+Gardner too a little bit) and Marquise Williams--although you could add Taylor Kelly from ASU into the equation, too.
The North Carolina-to-Florida State transition last year seems to be instructive here.
I cited the ugly stats above against the Tar Heels but the next week, against more "talent", the Irish gave up almost 200 fewer yards. Sure, you could point to the YPP surrendered in each game (6.14 vs. 5.67) and think there wasn't a huge discrepancy. But isn't this the exact point? North Carolina was able to rip off 27 more plays compared to the Seminoles--that difference is basically an extra quarter and a half of football compared to Notre Dame's seasonal average (which were driven way up later in the season).
My main point is this: With the way the game is played today there are some high octane offenses that are going to mess you up and you can't point to one game and think that makes your defense/game planning/scheme so terrible. Giving up 30 points does not mean what it used to mean.
I already mentioned how Clemson struggled against North Carolina's offense. Elsewhere, TCU was bad ass last year and gave up almost 800 freakin' yards to Baylor. And while Stanford had a nice 3-year run defending Oregon's offense they still gave up 5.0+ YPP in each of those 2011-13 games, which included allowing 53 points in that 2011 loss to the Ducks. Outside those 3 years, Oregon piled up an average of 573 yards against Stanford in the 2009, 2010, and 2014 games. Stanford probably has defended Oregon about as well as anyone in the Pac-12 and yet they've still been giving up over 37 points per game to the Ducks since 2009.
The good news? There doesn't appear to be too many scary up-tempo spread offenses on the Notre Dame 2015 schedule. In fact, Texas and Clemson seem like the only major threats in this category. After that there's a bunch of pro-style teams, and of course, a pair of flexbone teams. Clemson could definitely be a rude welcoming but beyond that there's hope that VanGorder should be able to corral most of the other offenses--at least in terms of tempo spread teams. But if there's a North Carolina on the 2015 schedule and it's more of a isolated situation than anything else are we going to freak out or chalk it up being a part of the game in this era?