Our basketball contributors are writing their end-of-season recaps, our football folks are beginning their preparations for the Blue-Gold game, and the Olympic sports teams are winding down their coverage. So it's time for the sport that drags on well into the summer after all the students have left to go home: Lacrosse.
Notre Dame men's lacrosse is clinging to its #1 ranking with a record of 6-1, its only loss coming in overtime to the defending national champion Denver Pioneers. The Irish's performance so far has been part glorious, part pedestrian. However, in a year with no clear powerhouse at the top, perfection may not be required for a championship run.
Ever since Notre Dame's entry into the lacrosse elite with its surprise appearance in the 2010 finals, we've been blessed with regular television coverage of our beloved Fighting Irish, and they're invited to play at the top neutral-site events. We don't have to guess what they're like because near all their games are on TV, and for team ND-Atl, they regularly play down the street in Atlanta. The remainder is streamed by the WatchND folks. We've been treated to quite a season so far with plenty of excitement and high expectations. With all this being said, here are the midseason grades for the Irish as prepared by the team at ND-Atl, along with comments from longtime One Foot Down lacrosse contributor Paul Rigney.
We're not as fancy as the football writers with their 0 to 100 scale and analysis of every player. We'll keep it simple with basic letter grades for the various skill groupings like half-field offense and defense, face-off, clears, rides, etc. For those new to lacrosse and have no idea what some of these terms mean, don't be shy about asking questions in the comments. Speaking for team ND-Atl, we have nothing better to do than answer lacrosse questions.
We'll start with the gloriously good:
6-on-6 Defense: Grade A+
This one is easy. The Irish are the #1 ranked defense in raw and adjusted efficiency, and in goals allowed (6.57/game). More importantly, they look like the #1 defense. Led by the stellar Matt Landis and steady Ed Glazener on the back line, and deep cast at midfield including LSM Jim Sexton, this unit has been largely responsible for the team's early season success. And they've been good without the injured all-american Garrett Epple and the graduated short-stick midfield superstar Jack Near. What has been particularly fun to watch is that each player simply takes care of their man. They don't slide much, and without the need to double-team, offenses have difficulty exploiting this version of the Irish D. Defenses in years past were good, too, but if offensive possessions lasted long enough, cracks would emerge as defenders recovered from double-teams. Not with this group. If they double, it usually means they are taking the ball away. Sure they make occasional mistakes and give up a goal here and there, but that's how it is in lacrosse: even the worst team is likely to put a 3 inch ball into a 36 square foot net a few times a game.
Goaltending: Grade A-
Shane Doss has performed very, very well this year. He's 3rd in the nation with a .598 save percentage and has looked good doing it. His save totals aren't as high as many of the other top goalies, but that's probably a function of the excellent defense he plays behind. Coach Corrigan has regularly produced good goalies like the football team produces good tight ends. Why only an A-? Doss does occasionally seem to lose concentration and give up a goal or two he shouldn't, and because of the offensive woes there hasn't been much opportunity to play Owen Molloy in net, so we'll hold back a perfect grade.
The Ride: Grade A
The raw stat is that opponents successfully clear the ball a paltry 75% rate. Beyond this measure it is difficult to cobble together the right metrics to evaluate transition defense, but this group simply meets the eyeball test. They generate a lot of turnovers, and this generates a lot of fast-break goals. If it were not for the Ride, it's unlikely Notre Dame exceeds a .500 record. There are two critical observations that show this year is an exceptional example for a team that historically always has a good Ride. First, the stars on the attack are totally committed to playing defense. High school coaches across the country shout with joy when the see an attackman pounce on the defender who has been tormenting them all game and generates a turnover. In the case of Notre Dame, Mikey Wynne and Matt Kavanaugh, who are undersized by any standard, regularly get the best of their much larger defenders. Second, the Irish rarely call for the 10-man ride. Corrigan and Co. are famous for their hyper-aggressive 10-man ride (a full-court press where even the goalie comes out of the net to cover a player). This season, they are generating similar levels of pressure without the risk of taking the goalie out of the net. Simply fantastic.
Face Off: Grade B-
This grouping is difficult to grade, and there was a temptation to give a much worse grade, but it hasn't been all bad. Face-off specialist P.J. Finley has had a tough go of it head-to-head, especially the last few games. The unit had a great game against Denver's Trevor Baptiste, but Finley has largely been outmatched and the various players at the wings haven't done enough to help him. Statistically Finley hovers around #50 in the country, which puts the Irish at a disadvantage, having to regularly get the ball back rather than start on offense. The bright side, and the reason for the surprise B- grade, is that when the unit does get possession, Finley and Jim Sexton score a lot for a faceoff unit, with two goals a piece, and create more than their fair share of fast-break scoring chances for the rest of the offense. With some very strong face-off specialists still on the schedule, this group is a priority area for improvement.
Clears: Grade B+
When the defense regains possession, they clear the ball to the offensive end at an excellent rate of .892. This would normally earn an A grade, but unlike its mirror, the Ride, the Clear doesn't always pass the eyeball test. They always seem to be on the clock, and their approach is very slow and methodical. Given the team's general offensive difficulties, one would hope this unit would push the pace a lot better.
It's abundantly clear (no pun intended) at this point that the Irish thrive on unsettled situations, but when it comes to any type of settled situation (see our 6-on-6 offense grade below), Notre Dame looks rather pedestrian. The thing is, you can easily generate unsettled situations on the clear if you play your cards right. Instead, the Irish have been methodical with establishing possession on clears and while they are mostly successful, they don't always equal points on the scoreboard.
Man-Up Offense: Grade B+
Notre Dame is within the top-10 in generating points in the extra man set, scoring on 47% of its opportunities. This is very good, but the sample size is fairly small, so they don't quite get the full-grade yet. The fact that the sample size is small is in itself a cause for concern as it suggests the offense is not enough of a threat to draw penalties.
We'll make the argument that 80% of all penalties in lacrosse are one-of: Slash, Illegal Bodycheck, Unnecessary Roughness. In order to generate those penalties, offenses have to have either a Crease Monkey (attack/middie who just hangs out on crease for dump passes), aggressive driving attackmen, or both. The Irish appear to have neither at this juncture or if they do, they aren't that effective (again...see that 6-on-6 offense grade below). When you don't have this combination, you're not really going to get any penalty chances unless you're playing against a bone-headed longpole who slashes at the top of the box.
Man-Down Defense: Grade C
For such a great full-strength defense, they are middling at best man-down, killing only 60% of their penalties. Fortunately, the Irish are not a heavily penalized team. This grouping is a huge disappointment so far simply because there should not be such a drop-off from the glorious full-strength defense. The raw numbers put the unit as 47th best in the country. Average performance earned them an average C, but this is a tragedy because of such squandered potential. Having said all this, there is no reason why we should not expect significant improvement in the second half of the season.
The loss of Garrett Epple after the first four games might be a large reason for this drop-off. Epple is a turnover machine, with arguably one of the quickest takeaway checks amongst the Irish longpoles. With Epple in the lineup at the back end, the Irish's first four opponents could only manage a 27% success rate on the man-up. Without Epple? 56%. Yikes. It might be a communication issue or it might reflect the quality of opponents, but there is no doubt that Epple's loss to injury has directly impacted the man-down D.
Transition Offense: Grade A
Not much needs to be said, the Irish have no problem scoring in unsettled situations. They lose the "+" for not closing the deal against Denver, where a few unfortunate whiffs in the closing seconds kept the Irish from a great win.
6-on-6 Offense: Grade C-
How a team with Perkovic, Kavanaugh and Wynne simply fails to generate offense is a mystery. An anemic .282 shot percentage (even with Wynne shooting 50%), well into the 30's in most offensive categories, and into the 50's in the efficiency rankings is simply unacceptable. These rankings factor in transition offense (which has been good), so they significantly inflate the offense's statistical effectiveness.
The problem signs were there even in the relatively high scoring early season games. ND seemed to have no difficultly scoring in unsettled situations, but the half field offense seemed to involve passing the ball around for two minutes and then throwing it out of bounds. There are many available excuses, from Kavanaugh's apparent continuing injury and the loss of critical players to graduation, but there is way too much talent, and depth, for the offense to be this bad. There was a temptation to grade this an F, but effort is definitely there, Corrigan is trying new ideas and going deep into the bench, Mikey Wynne has himself been fantastic, and when he decides it is the right time, Sergio can be magnificent. Plus, Matt Kavanaugh seems to be on the mend and quickly improving. This is the critical area for the second half of the season. There will be games where even the best defense gives up a bunch of points. Such is the nature of lacrosse. Notre Dame needs to be able to keep up in the inevitable shoot outs that occur.
The 6-on-6 has been pretty mediocre and the graduation of key players has been more impactful than it might've originally appeared. Ryder Gurnsey has been a solid contributor replacing Conor Doyle at attack and he definitely has a high ceiling like Doyle did, but the midfield outside of the first unit is very troubling. Corrigan hasn't really tinkered with the top line of Perkovic-Brosco-Collins and they're definitely solid, but the 2nd line is what concerns me. Corrigan has Pridemore anchoring it as he should. He's one of the top middies on the team, but he has quite a bit of youth playing with him, as we see Drew Schantz, Timmy Phillips and Pierre Byrne seeing time. A set 2nd line with Pridemore-Riccardi-Gray and then plugging in specialists where needed might be a better option. This lack of cohesiveness might go a long way in explaining the troubles in settled offensive situations.
Coaching: Grade B+
The Fighting Irish are the #1 team in the country with the best defense and best ride, and with a top goalie and great transition offense. Coaching gets the benefit of the doubt for this excellence. Corrigan and Co. do not get the full grade for their inability to generate effective half-field offense, and until very recently, for their use of ordinary and unoriginal thinking to help get the team out of the offensive slump. Having said all that, the good is so good that one can overlook the fact they aren't perfect in every category. Bonus points to Assistant Coach Gerry Byrne for that awesome defense.
The Fans: Grade A
We'll throw this in for the huge showing of support the team gets at home and on the road. Arlotta Stadium has been getting huge and festive crowds even with the less-than-ideal early spring South Bend weather (1000+ season tickets). More importantly, the Irish have basically had home crowds on the road, with 6000+ predominantly Notre Dame fans in Orange County, the bulk of the 4000+ Cobb County Georgia Classic crowd (complete with massive tailgate scene), and a huge turnout at Ohio Stadium. The Irish won't see a hostile crowd until this week in the Carrier Dome (coincidentally both the 100th anniversary of Syracuse lacrosse celebration and the Syracuse Final Four pre-game, may top out over 10,000).
Intangibles: Grade A+
Ever since they emerged as a national presence, the Fighting Irish may be the most resilient Notre Dame sports team this university has ever seen. This year's mens' hoops has been a wonderfully resilient team, but even they can't compare to this team's ability to come back from any deficit. Scoring runs are not uncommon in lacrosse, but the fact that this team can conjure one up at will, with no time on the clock, and regardless of the circumstances, makes them such a pleasure to watch. Four goals in :43? No problem. Stop a point-blank shot to save a game? Sure thing. Steal a possession with a bonecrushing ride, pass it to the one player in the country who shoots at 105 mph for an overtime winner? Whatever you like.
Total: Grade A-
Notre Dame is the #1 team, but it has vulnerabilities. We'll know a lot more in the next few weeks with Syracuse, Duke, and North Carolina on deck, followed by a rising Marquette and the ACC tournament. Whichever of ND, "Cuse or Duke shows the most improvement this month will be in the driver's seat to challenge Denver in the NCAAs. In this process it will be near impossible for the Irish D to keep all these teams below 10 goals, so they'll have to find a way to consistently be able to score more than 10 themselves. We have no idea how they will do this, but if we have learned anything since 2010, there seems to be no limit to the amount of rabbits they can pull out of a hat.
Syracuse is next up for the Irish, Saturday @ 5:00, ESPNU. A nice preview of the game by SBNation Syracuse page.