The Notre Dame Fighting Irish shook the rust off this weekend after a two week break, defeating a bad Florida State Seminoles team 42-26 in what felt like the closest blowout of all time. Many criticized the Irish turnovers and sloppiness as reasons this Irish squad is not elite, but we have the numbers to calm the doomsayers down. As always, please check out this primer for definitions of the statistics that will be used in this article.
While it felt like the Irish were in full control for the vast majority of the game, Florida State took advantage of turnovers deep in Notre Dame territory to stay in the game. They had a win probability over 50% after taking a 17-14 lead, and had a realistic shot at a comeback until the third quarter when the Irish went up 42-26 on Ian Book’s three yard touchdown run. The fumbles are slightly concerning but I wouldn’t be too worried about them unless it continues to rear its head in the coming weeks.
Ian Book played one of his best games in a long time Saturday night. He was efficient targeting all levels of the field, including the deep ball where he completed two passes over twenty yards. The only area he appeared to struggle was on third down, but it is also very encouraging that Notre Dame faced very few third down situations so his performance there was not as important in the outcome. The Irish faced third down on 23.5% of their sets of downs in this game, well below the FBS average of 46.4%. While Book was not good on the three third down plays he was tasked with throwing, his offense was consistently moving the sticks on first and second down, which is even better.
The offensive line play is the key to making the offense go, both on the ground and through the air. Kyren Williams has been playing great, but few would currently rank him among the elite running backs of college football yet. Despite this, he is currently sixth in the FBS in EPA yards per rushing play at 0.39, in large part due to the line ripping open monster holes in front of him. Ian Book also fared far better throwing from the pocket, something he was able to do consistently with good protection and it showed with an aDOT of 12 yards. If this Irish line can avoid injury, there are few teams that can stuff the Irish run or get home on Ian Book consistently.
It was a great game for Javon McKinley. Not only was he the most productive receiver, but his 21.2 aDOT shows that Book is willing to push the ball down the field to him. Many guys can run the drags and slants that Book is often comfortable throwing, but only the Miles Boykins and Chase Claypools of the world can be relied upon to consistently run these vertical routes. It is far too early to mention McKinley’s name in this company yet, as outside of this game and a couple of garbage time performances we know him as a primarily blocking receiver. However, don’t assume that Kevin Austin will pass up McKinley as Book’s favorite target when he is fully healthy just yet.
The Irish used far more motion in this game with Braden Lenzy fully healthy, using him across the formation in both pre snap and snap motion. The Irish were actually less efficient when using motion in this game, but this is a small sample and its good to see the Irish committing to a strategy that should lead to more efficient offense. Similarly, play action did not generate points the way that it usually does for the Irish, likely due to passing just being very efficient overall against the Seminoles. Despite this it was good to see Tom Rees use play fakes so frequently as the play action pass is the most efficient play in football. Hopefully this game does not discourage Rees from dialing it up in future weeks.
This game was an excellent example why you’ll never see “points” as a metric for evaluating defense quality in anything we write. Obviously the team with more points wins, but we are more interested in the predictive powers of EPA than the explanative powers of prior points results. Going forward we expect the Irish to perform better than a defense that would give up twenty-six points against Florida State. The reason is Notre Dame’s defense was put in two situations early where drives started deep in their territory. After the Kyren Williams fumble, the Seminoles were expected to score four points with their excellent field position. The Irish forced a three and out, and the Seminoles kicked a field goal (3 points against the defense on the scoreboard, -1 points for them in expectation). After the Keys fumble, the Seminoles were expected to score 4.7 points with their field position. They scored a touchdown, so that was 7 points on the scoreboard, but only 2.3 above expectation. Adding these up, you can assign 1.3 of the 10 total points to the defense, and 8.7 of them to Williams and Keys for fumbles that put the Irish defense behind the eight ball. There were some negatives from the defense in this game and they did not live up to their elite billing, but do not assume because the Seminoles hung up twenty-six points that this was some kind of disaster for the Irish.
Jordan Travis held his own in his first start against an excellent Irish defense, but needed to do more than that to lead his squad to an upset win. He was extremely efficient throwing deep, connecting on five of his seven passes that travelled over twenty yards. This is the main concern I have about the defense after this game, but I have confidence that Clark Lea will figure out a way to fix this problem. Notre Dame was also without their top two cornerbacks until Thursday, so this could end up being an anomaly in a few weeks. Travis was better on the ground than through the air, making him the second quarterback in three games against the Irish to generate solid EPA on rushing plays. This was also concerning as we mentioned that Travis is a dangerous runner and Clark Lea would need to be ready for his ground game. The Irish will also need to iron this out before facing Trevor Lawrence, a surprisingly efficient runner who generated 0.57 rushing EPA/play in 2019.
The Irish passing offense was in gear in this one which is my main takeaway. Aside from a couple of fumbles and the defense having a few struggles (but still holding the Seminoles to a solid -0.07 EPA/play) there is little reason for alarm from this game. If Book and McKinley can play like this the rest of the way and the defense gets back on track this has the potential to be a really special Irish team.