Saturday was somewhat of a struggle for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, taking down now 1-4 Louisville 12-7 in an underwhelming fashion that felt all too familiar to Irish fans. While it was discouraging in areas, a win is a win to the CFP committee and the ACC standings. The Irish now must find a way to improve before their upcoming matchup with Pittsburgh (you thought I was going to say Clemson didn’t you, one game at a time people). For a primer on the statistics that will be used to reach somewhat controversial opinions on Saturday’s game, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
The Irish were in control of this game until the fake field goal returned 20 percentage points of win probability to Louisville and gave them the opportunity to take the lead early in the second half. The Irish got a quick scoring drive when they needed it most right after Louisville’s touchdown to get back over 50%. It was a bumpy ride from there on, but the Irish took firm control of the game with their final drive, killing the final 7:55 of the game en route to taking knees in the Cardinal red zone.
Before we dive into these numbers it is important we be transparent about how we categorize play results. Scrambles and sacks are included in drop backs and attributed to the passing game, since these are the results of passing plays even though they don’t result in pass attempts. We also distinguish between scrambles and designed quarterback runs (an easy distinction usually by looking at whether the offensive line is run blocking or pass blocking and if skill players are running routes) to further get a sense of what play calls are generating Irish offense.
With that being said, let’s separate out the components that led to Book having a 0.25 EPA/drop back. While Book was just -0.03 EPA/play as a thrower, he had an excellent 1.86 EPA/play on four scrambles with a 75% success rate on these scampers and a touchdown. He also took four sacks in the game that averaged -1.16 EPA.
So, Book was excellent scrambling, took far more sacks than normal, and was mediocre but not awful as a passer. It may seem impossible that Book was better in this game throwing than he was against Duke while completing just one pass over ten yards, but Book was able to salvage his throwing day by picking up key third downs. Third downs are extremely high leverage plays when looking at EPA, since failures often drop the EPA of that drive to near zero while conversions obviously move the chains and keep drives alive. Book’s two critical third down passes on the final drive were enough to get his throwing EPA up into mediocre territory, while his sensational scrambling EPA (largely from the touchdown run that happened on another critical third down) took his EPA on drop backs up over 0.25 EPA/play.
Book’s throwing over ten yards was unacceptable in several ways. Completing one pass over ten yards and attempting just six passes over ten yards are both not offensive choices that can beat good teams. This is the main reason his EPA throwing was not higher even with these third down pickups included, you can’t have good EPA/play as a quarterback without making big drive changing throws down the field.
This was partially because it was not a good day for Javon McKinley and other Irish “deep threats”. He led Irish wide receivers in snaps and targets and failed to do anything of note with these opportunities. They did not use him deep down the field like they did last week, and as we mentioned previously Florida State was likely an outlier performance for McKinley given what we know about him for over four years now. He has been mostly a depth blocking receiver his whole career, and the coaching staff using him like a Boykin or Claypool just feels forced. He’s pretty clearly not a jump ball receiver or a spectacular athlete, and while there is absolutely a role for him in this pass game we need to see more Austin and Lenzy being tasked with the vertical routes.
Despite the gaudy rushing yardage total, the Irish were more efficient on their drop backs than they were running the ball, especially in the second half. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree combined for negative EPA/play, and even just Book throwing was more efficient than their combined stats. Tommy Rees’ insistence on running the ball in the second half hurt the Irish massively, and they were bailed out by Book’s uber efficient third down performance that moved the chains in the second half. Simply put, Rees got discouraged with the pass game in the first half and gave up on it. This is not the only way Rees get discouraged quickly with the pass game. On plays immediately following incompletions this season, Notre Dame throws 40% of the time. The only teams that throw less often are Air Force, FAU, FIU, Georgia Southern, and Navy (note that three of these teams deploy triple option offense). This is despite the fact that when passing in these scenarios, the Irish average a whopping 0.61 EPA/Play (9th of 76 in FBS) whereas running generates 0.26 (21st of 76). If yards/play is more your flavor, passing generates 7.25 yards in these situations where rushing averages 6.2 yards. Book has not lived up to expectations, but Rees needs to trust him more going forward to prevent defenses from selling out completely to stop the run and give the receivers an opportunity to improve and show they can be trusted. RTDB likely gets this team to another double-digit win season, but it won’t work on November 7th or in a potential rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
The Irish gave up the same EPA/play to the Cardinals that they did last week to the Seminoles but gave up nineteen fewer points. This is because Louisville started every drive in their own territory and just one drive beyond their own thirty yard line. The offense and special teams put the defense in a position to succeed this time, and they answered the bell with a great performance on the field and spectacular performance on the scoreboard. The special teams sloppiness we saw last weekend was gone in this one, which along with the defense is another positive to take out of a discouraging offensive effort.
Despite the good results on the scoreboard the same defensive problems we pointed out last week were back. The Irish got torched by Malik Cunningham on the ground, giving up 0.39 EPA/play on scrambles and 1.23 EPA/play on designed quarterback runs. This has been a weakness for the Irish all year that needs to be addressed. Interestingly, they were so good at containing running back and wide receiver runs Louisville’s total rushing EPA was an abysmal -0.19 EPA/play. In particular, giving the ball to running back Javian Hawkins was inefficient. Another prediction in our preview that proved correct, Louisville’s insistence on rushing with Hawkins hampered their offense, especially in the first half. The Irish rush defense was mostly good, but opposing quarterbacks cannot continue to shred the Irish defense like this.
In addition to quarterback rushing, opposing deep passing was an issue yet again. In the last two weeks, opposing quarterbacks are six of ten throwing twenty or more yards down the field. This is completely unacceptable, and the Irish secondary needs to improve in this area. This defense has most of the making to be special, but if it can’t stop giving up the home run pass and opposing quarterback rushing opposing teams are going to take advantage.
Even in a game where the Irish completed one pass over ten yards, dropping back to throw was still more efficient than designed running. Tommy Rees needs to figure out how to throw against blitzing teams by utilizing more quick passing concepts and, as Pete Sampson mentioned in his article in The Athletic, pairing passing concepts with the RPO. Ian Book also needs to get more comfortable extending plays and getting the ball deeper down the field, while his playmakers need to work on simply getting open. This was the most discouraging performance from the Irish offense yet against a defense that should have been overmatched. Hopefully we see the dominant rushing game and some deep passing return this weekend against Pittsburgh.