The Notre Dame Fighting Irish took care of business in their final matchup before the much awaited Clemson game, convincingly putting away a mediocre Georgia Tech team without much stress along the way (save one fluky fumble returned for a touchdown early). The Irish will now turn their attention to the Clemson Tigers, but first let’s see what we can learn from a somewhat uneventful Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets matchup. As always, please follow this link to definitions of statistics that will be used in this analytics recap (we welcome new readers here cramming for the Clemson game)!
The Irish were in full control of this one until a scoop and score following the Kyren Williams fumble created a 14 point Yellow Jacket swing late in the first quarter. The Irish stayed the course by continuing to feed Williams and scoring on their next possession. The Irish put this game away shortly after halftime, and Irish fans nationwide were able to essentially turn their attention to Clemson once the Irish took a 31-7 lead.
The Irish had an excellent passing performance against an average Georgia Tech secondary. Ian Book was sharp on intermediate throws 10-19 yards down the field, posting a 60% completion percentage and an eye popping 1.38 EPA/play. Including his deep throws he was four of seven completing passes ten or more yards down the field. In our opinion this is still probably too conservative of a strategy to succeed against better competition. In this game over 70% of his passes were under 10 yards and on the season it’s over 60%. Notre Dame is going to need more chunk plays down the field to keep up with more dangerous offenses. Despite this, Book continued his recent trend of being spectacular on third down, picking up six of the nine third downs on pass plays and averaged 1.48 EPA/play on these plays. The Irish did not do a great job of avoiding third down (an average 46.7% of sets of downs reached third down) but once they got there they were excellent. While this was good to see Book efficient on third down, the Irish may need to do a better job of avoiding third down altogether against Clemson to have a chance on offense.
Javon McKinley had another excellent game and is growing nicely into his role as the number one receiver. While he may not have the physical tools of a Boykin or Claypool he showed good instincts and chemistry when catching a back shoulder pass from Book early in the second half. McKinley’s aDOT of 11 was second on the team behind Ben Skowronek, and the sample size on the season is finally large enough to say these two will be the primary downfield pass catchers. In addition, it appears our speculation from the preview has come true and Avery Davis has replaced Braden Lenzy. Davis averaged .34 EPA/play despite his average catch coming behind the line of scrimmage. If Clemson chooses to stack the box and dial up a lot of blitzes as Louisville and Pittsburgh did, watch for Davis to be heavily utilized on short crossing routes and screens to get the ball out of Book’s hands quickly (similar to the Irish game plan against Georgia last year).
On the whole the Irish were not as bad running the ball as some of these statistics indicate. To gain some more clarity, these numbers have removed the fumble from the data set, since that play alone was worth -11.4 EPA and took our rushing attack on the day down to -.24 EPA/play. Outside the fumble, many of the negative Irish runs were from C’Bo Flemister when the game was mostly out of reach. Excluding the fumble, Williams (who averaged -.59 EPA/play with the fumble included) and Tyree both averaged positive EPA/play. The run game was not as efficient as the pass game, but it was not nearly as mediocre as that -.03 EPA/play indicates. However, whether the fumble is in or out of the data this is now the fourth straight game where passing was more efficient than running, and for the season Notre Dame is averaging more EPA/Play throwing the football. This team is winning because of an efficient, albeit unspectacular, passing offense, and not because of running the ball.
The Yellow Jackets were abysmal on their pass attempts in this game as Jeff Sims continued to struggle limiting turnovers. His -0.61 EPA/play on pass plays was the best performance for the Irish defense this season, and it was encouraging to see Sims contained on the ground as well. The Irish have had difficulty defending quarterback runs this season and will have to be ready for DJ Uiagelelei next weekend. In limited action this season he is averaging 0.36 EPA/play on the ground. It was great the Irish limited Jeff Sims on the ground but they’ll need to do it against far stiffer competition next weekend.
The Yellow Jackets found a bit of room on the ground for Jahmyr Gibbs and their rushing attack but not much. Georgia Tech gained .03 EPA/rush, a respectable figure but not even close to enough to wipe out their awful passing numbers. The run defense lagged behind the pass defense a bit, but there is no cause for alarm in this area.
Once again, deep passing defense continues to be a concern and could cause problems with the prolific Clemson aerial attack. Sims went 1 for 3 on throws over 20 yards and averaged 0.62 EPA. You may think the fact he only went deep three times implied Notre Dame had sound coverage deep, but this may not be the case. One of Sims’ misses was on a wide open receiver and, in my opinion, the limited attempts have more to do with his conservative style rather than the defense. On the season only 17% of his throws have been over 20 yards downfield. In this game it was 15%. This has been an area that we have harped on since the hiatus and it’s a relative weakness for the Irish defense. There is a bit disagreement amongst our pair on how worried lrish fans should be about this, and you’ll have to listen to our podcast Shake Down The Numbers (found right here on OneFootDown and on our twitter @ND_FB_Analytics) to hear us debate how alarming these stats should be.
Outside of somewhat more clarity at wide receiver there was little to be learned from this game. Notre Dame is elite on defense, although deep passing is somewhat of a concern as they prepare to face one of the best pass defenses in the country. They are good at running the football, although it has cooled off significantly from the early season. There are still questions in the passing game and whether they will be able to generate enough explosive plays. While it is fair this game was not as crisp as some may have liked it to be, the Irish won yet another relatively stress free ACC game and credit has to be given to Brian Kelly and his staff for taking care of business in the last two weeks. This Clemson game would not have nearly the hype it has if the Irish had faltered in one of their early winnable games, and Brian Kelly deserves credit for this.