The analytics are indicating that it is time to party like it’s 1993, because the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have taken down the number one team in the country. Notre Dame achieved this with excellent defense, spectacular quarterback play, and a resolve that kept the team in it until the final whistle. This Irish team has all the potential in the world to be special, and we have the analytics to tell you why. For more information on the stats that will be used in this piece, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Please note that all statistics exclude both overtimes.
Unfortunately this chart does not include overtime, but there is plenty of interesting information to take in here. Each team’s fumbles were deadly, since Clemson’s set Notre Dame up with spectacular field positions and Ian Book’s cost them 5.2 expected points due to it occurring so close to the end zone. The Clemson Tigers only really took control of the game in the fourth quarter with Notre Dame’s chances getting especially bleak after the Irish turned the ball over on downs with very little time remaining. However, the Irish did not quit and put together an incredible drive to take Clemsons’ win probability from around 93% all the way back down to 50% for overtime. So essentially, this win was never in doubt and Irish fans everywhere were not nervous at any point, right everyone?
Notre Dame’s passing game was spectacular thanks mostly to Ian Book making the adjustments he needed to make to beat a superior opponent. Book attacked down the field, posting a season high aDOT of 13, unleashing nine passes of over twenty air yards and completing three of them for a 0.35 EPA/play.
Book’s intermediate throwing was a bit worse than we expected to see, but he made up for it by making excellent decisions near the line of scrimmage, including a few perfect touch throws that could be caught in stride for big games.
His top line metrics indicate that this game was in line with his season averages in terms of EPA/play. We would argue Book played far better than his season average, and that this was his best game as Notre Dame’s quarterback. First, these numbers exclude overtime where Book was spectacular. Second, there were several incredible throws from Book that did not end up helping his statistics. Avery Davis being unable to come down with a deep shot in the end zone in particular comes to mind, as it was one of three drops by Irish pass catchers. Book also threw the ball away 6 times and suffered from multiple missed pass Interference penalties. On a night where the Irish could not get anything going on the ground (more on that later), Ian Book stood tall and put the offense on his back, finishing with a season high 90.7 PFF Passing Grade.
Book could not do this alone though, as it was an excellent night for Irish pass catchers as well. Since Notre Dame dropped passes behind the line from the game plan from the game plan, all three of the starting receivers were asked to run vertical routes. Avery Davis in particular saw his aDOT jump from -0.6 to 20.1 compared to last week, and was excellent in his new role. Javon McKinley once again showed how good he is with the ball in the air on an early third down pickup, and while Skowronek was not particularly efficient in this game he did show the ability to get separation against good defenders. He’s someone whose numbers will be impacted by the no-calls in this game. Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble each were involved and efficient, and it was great to see Mayer remain in the game and be given opportunities after a costly false start penalty in the first quarter. Mayer kept his head high and got back to work after the mistake and Brian Kelly deserves credit for continuing to get him the ball.
While the passing game flourished the run game was mostly stagnant. Outside of Kyren Williams’ long early touchdown, the Irish averaged a meager 1.3 yards per first down run with only one going for over 5 yards. The team’s struggles were even worse in the second half, where they averaged -0.87 EPA/rush (although it would be more like -0.3 EPA/rush with Ian Book’s fumble removed from the data). Kyren Williams broke the long touchdown and was excellent in pass protection all night long, but there simply was nowhere else for him to go on his other rushing attempts. Ian Book generated mediocre production without the fumble and had awful rushing production with the fumble included. Outside of the early touchdown the Irish won in spite of their rushing, and if you got sick of watching the Irish in 2nd and 9 or 2nd and 10 every drive in the fourth quarter and overtime you were not alone.
Not to be outdone by Ian Book, DJ Uiagalelei was spectacular in this game as well. He was efficient targeting every level of the field, and especially efficient targeting deep, something we discussed could be an issue pregame. Including overtime he was three of five going twenty or more yards down the field, with an EPA over 1.5 per attempt. Obviously not having Trevor Lawrence hurt, but there is not a whole lot of room for improvement with these passing numbers.
They were so efficient throwing because the Irish fully sold out against the run. This can be seen in the play action numbers. Clemson was completely unstoppable when running play action, gaining 15.9 yards per play as Irish defenders were drawn towards the line by the play fakes. This is the area where Lawrence could impact the game. Uiagalelei only went deep 4 times in regulation and 9% of his throws and had an aDOT of 6.8 on Saturday. However, Lawrence has gone deep over 17% of the time this season. If the teams were to meet in the ACC Championship game, it may make sense to sacrifice some increased rushing efficiency in order to prevent Clemson from connecting on the deep ball. This is because on Saturday the Irish defense was clearly coached to stop Etienne at all costs and it hurt them in the deep passing game and the play action game.
However, this strategy worked wonders against Clemson’s rushing attack. Travis Etienne was a black hole for the Tigers, with all of his carries costing them 10.3 expected points, a ridiculously bad figure for a non quarterback. Uiagalelei was barely any better rushing, an area we identified that would be key for the Irish defense. Clemson was particularly stifled on two 3rd and 1s where they ran the ball, and converted on neither attempt. Despite being completely unable to rush, they still dialed up eighteen run plays in the second half in a game where they were throwing the ball incredibly well. We believe they felt pressure to force feed Travis Etienne the football, and it hurt them majorly. The Irish made Clemson a one dimensional offensive football team, and it kept the Irish in the game.
We said pregame that Clemson’s offense was going to score, and the Irish defense had to do their best to contain them. They did just that, getting key second half stops and taking Travis Etienne completely out of the game. Ian Book and the offense took advantage of this opening, attacking down the field for big gains as Avery Davis and Javon McKinley solidified themselves as excellent options for the Irish going forward. The defense set the table, and Ian Book delivered. It remains to be seen if Book’s performance is a one game aberration or a big step in his progression. If Notre Dame can continue to get the level of defense and quarterback play they got on November 7th, they can matchup with anyone in the country, and that includes the healthier Clemson squad they’re likely to see in a few weeks.