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Five Factors Review: Fiesta Bowl

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Ohio State ran like Battlefrogs while Notre Dame was inconsistent offensively

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Final Five Factors review of the 2015 season - thanks for reading and talking #sportsmath and #esplosiva in the comments, it's been fun.

(Confused? Check out the first Five Factors review from Texas or Bill Connelly's Five Factors - the most important stats that determine who wins a college football game)

ESPLOSIVANESS

Plays

Yards

YPP

Notre Dame

61

342

5.61

Ohio State

81

490

6.05

Garbage time was removed only for the final Notre Dame possession, and I was surprised that the YPP deficit here for the Irish wasn't as bad as it seemed. It certainly felt like Ohio State could do what they wanted against a depleted Notre Dame defense, but the YPP for the Buckeyes was actually lower than Navy's (6.16) or USC's (7.76) earlier this year. There may have been a late series or two with relatively conservative play-calling, but in a game where Ohio State was still throwing frequently I thought it was an admirable performance in the second half, where the Buckeyes average YPP was around 4.9.

Offensively, this was Notre Dame's worst YPP output of the season. Against the best secondary he faced this season DeShone Kizer turned in an inconsistent performance, skipping several passes and uncharacteristically lacking touch on some deep shots. For me, the biggest win for the Buckeyes was limiting Notre Dame's explosive runs - even without Bosa, Schutt, and Washington the Irish only had three runs of 10 yards or more.  The only chance Brian Kelly's team had with a hybrid first/second team defense was to hold the ball for long possessions on offense that ended in touchdowns. The running game appeared to be the most likely way to accomplish this, but wasn't able to.

Runs 10+

% of Runs

Passes 20+

% Passes

Overall Explosive Play %

Notre Dame

4

14.8%

1

2.9%

8.2%

Ohio State

7

14.6%

2

6.1%

11.1%

We may need to retire ESPLOSIVA with the departure of Mr. Esplosiva, Will Fuller, to the NFL Draft, but his long score was the only explosive passing play. The Irish missed a few open receivers downfield, and early pressure on Kizer (and the interception negated by Bosa's targeting penalty) may have impacted his mindset and patience in the pocket. While it was overall a poor defensive performance, Notre Dame did avoid giving up long passing plays (not that the Buckeyes needed one) despite the absence of Max Redfield, KeiVarae Russell, and Devin Butler.

Efficiency

Pass Success Rate

Run Success Rate

Overall Success Rate

Notre Dame

44.1%

44.4%

44.3%

Ohio State

48.5%

62.5%

56.8%

For the second straight game the Irish were efficiently ground to dust on defense by an elite offense, with Ohio State moving the ball at will early on the ground. Stanford had a similar success rate with a different mix - the Irish contained the Cardinal on the ground but gave up tons of first downs through the air. It's hard to grade the defense accurately for this performance with Jaylon Smith leaving early and so many starters injured, suspended, or at less than 100%, but the Irish simply couldn't get off the field on third down.  Notre Dame was finally able to get some pressure on the Buckeyes late with zone blitzes, but early on Elliott and Barrett feasted on soft coverage and the same zone blitzes that didn't often bring more than 5 rushers.

This is a decent number by the Notre Dame offense against a very good defense, but re-watching the game shows lots of missed opportunities. There was simply no margin for error with the state of the Irish defense, and Notre Dame made several mistakes (many aided by tons of NFL-caliber talent on the Ohio State defense).

Field Position

Team

Avg. Starting Position

Notre Dame

OWN 20

Ohio State

OWN 35

Notre Dame was obliterated in the field position battle, in part because it was much tougher for the Irish to move the ball and about equally in part due to a sub-par special teams performance. Returning kickoffs (and there were a lot of them) was a disaster, and not the fault of CJ Sanders minus decisions to bring the ball out - there was absolutely nowhere for him to go. Tyler Newsome boomed some punts but more than once out-kicked his coverage.

Finishing Drives

Drives

Inside 40

PPD Inside 40

Notre Dame

11

5

5.60

Ohio State

11

9

4.89

If you're looking for a reason for optimism, here's one - the Irish clearly put an emphasis on the red zone in bowl practice and converted all four red zone opportunities into touchdowns. As the field shrank there some great creative play-calls, including a shovel pass, attempted pass by Torii Hunter Jr., and nice runs by Kizer. The only scoring opportunity missed was the drive after Bosa's ejection - a huge missed opportunity. The Irish had a first down at the OSU 32 down 14-0 and in desperate need of an answer, then went false start, sack, draw for six yards ( on 2nd and 23), and missed throw over Durham Smythe's head (probably not the right place to throw anyway) and ended up punting.

Defensively I don't give any real credit here - it was nice to hold Ohio State to field goals late in the game to avoid an embarrassing final score, but the real damage was already done in the first half with the Buckeyes converting each red zone trip into a touchdown.

Turnovers

A 2-1 advantage for Ohio State here, with a late strip-sack of Kizer (who never saw the blindside hit coming) and interception on a poor throw in the 4th quarter where I don't believe Kizer ever saw the safety lurking in the middle of the field. The redshirt freshman was also a little lucky to have his first quarter interception cancelled out by Bosa's targeting penalty on another poor decision. I wouldn't consider Kizer's pocket presence a weakness, but his decision-making on passing downs is an area to work on - six of his 10 interceptions have come on 3rd and 6+ yards.

How bad was this loss?

If you participated in the discussion around Eric's article about playing Ohio State, you'd know I am firmly on the side of "bowls are overrated". A lot of fans will use this loss as evidence to verify their viewpoint - that Notre Dame still can't compete with top programs (counterpoint: Clemson game, even though yes, it was a loss), Kelly is not a great coach, Van Gorder has to go, etc. Some of these could be true, but does this game deserve more weight than USC, Temple, Clemson, or Stanford? I don't believe so, and if anything it may be a less accurate measuring stick given the number of injuries and players suspended for the game. Unfortunately since this is the last piece of evidence we have from this team, this will be the game of choice most discussion during the offseason points to - maybe Kizer isn't that great, the offensive line is overrated, who knows where it will go.

At the end of the day, advanced stats weren't really fazed by the loss, since there was near-universal agreement that Ohio State was really a top team all along. In F+ the Irish dropped from 5th to 7th, and that feels about where it seems Notre Dame belongs. There's a difference as we all learned last week between playoff deservingness and best teams - Ohio State wasn't playoff deserving, but is clearly one of the country's best teams (I'd put them firmly in a top tier with Alabama and Clemson, followed by Stanford, Oklahoma, ND, Michigan State, and a few other teams you can debate.

Does it suck that the final chapter of this team ended this way? For sure. But if anything, the coaching staff can learn from this season - there will be plenty of negative impacts from losing, but in isolation it's likely better for to know your true strengths and weaknesses from facing top competition than enter next season with a false sense of confidence after some empty wins. This team was a level below national-championship caliber - the question will be if there are the right players and coaches in place to make that final leap possible.