Notre Dame suffered a blowout defeat on Saturday against the Clemson Tigers, a feeling all too familiar for Irish fans when this program steps onto the national stage. Fortunately, a ton of things went right for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to get to that point, and the team has enough playmakers to beat the Clemsons and Alabamas of the world. This blowout was not due to an un-closable talent gap, but rather a coaching staff who do not understand why their group wins and loses. With a game plan similar to Clemson’s in this very game, our squad could have at least given Clemson a great fight, and possibly pulled off another win like we saw in November.
Before we begin, we are going to break the statistics out into first half and full game statistics. This is because our win probability model gave the Irish less than a 5% chance to win the game after halftime, due to decisions made in the first half that effectively sunk the ship. To give you full context we are including the full game statistics as well, but we will mostly be using the first half statistics (5-95% win probability charts) to identify the team’s game plan before a massive point differential threw the plan off course. To understand the statistics we will be using to lay out this argument, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Notre Dame’s early goal offensively was to shorten the game by running the ball on early downs to kill the clock while generating enough positive plays to score after a long drive. The theory here is that ball control, which Brian Kelly explicitly mentioned when asked about preparing for Alabama, will keep Trevor Lawrence off the field and the shorten the game with fewer possessions for both teams. With fewer possessions more variance is introduced into the game and skill plays less of a factor in the result. For a team like Notre Dame that knew they would be outgunned in key areas, a shorter more varied game does seem like a good idea at first.
This breaks down quickly because against elite teams in 2020 the goal has to be to outscore your opponent and nothing else. In six years of the College Football Playoff, the winner of the championship game has scored over forty points four times and under thirty points just once. The best teams are no longer playing a run-heavy offense, and unless you score on every drive and take at least 8 minutes off the clock each time, ball control will not work. The days of beating elite teams by controlling the game with your ground attack are decidedly over, and this strategy hurt Notre Dame in several key ways.
The first obvious way it hurt is the Irish are simply better at passing than rushing on early downs. This has been true for the entire season after the first two games and has been especially true as of late. Early down passing was far more efficient in the first half when the game was in reach, and even including garbage time when Clemson conceded the run by playing prevent defense, early down passing was still far more efficient than running. Even in an average to mediocre game from Ian Book (more on that later) his first half drop backs averaged 0.04 EPA/Play including sacks, compared to -0.44 EPA/Rush with Kyren Williams.
The second way that this hurt Notre Dame is it routinely put Ian Book in an impossible position. Many on Twitter were quick to throw Ian Book under the bus when his somewhat errant 4th and 2 pass behind Avery Davis cost the Irish the football. Admittedly, this throw was not good. It was a throw Book would have made on November 7th and a throw the Irish needed to win. However, the Irish willingly put themselves in a high risk 4th and 3 in the name of controlling the clock. Ian Book was 6/7 for 105 yards at that point, yet the Irish ran on first, second, and third down to put themselves in that position. We have mentioned before that you can not rely on converting third and fourth downs in the long run, because even one small error or bad break destroys your drive. This was on full display when the Irish turned it over on downs here. On November 7th, Notre Dame went 7 for 14 throwing on 3rd down with an average distance of 8.6 yards. In the ACC Championship, they went 3 for 11 with an average distance of 8.9 yards. Having an offense built around converting long third downs is not a sustainable strategy and regression hit the Irish hard in this one. Yes, Book made a poor throw, but given how the passing offense looked at that stage it’s unlikely they would have been in fourth down at all if Book was given a chance on even one of the first three downs.
The Irish simply refused to run play action when this game was within reach even though it was working. If you are going to attempt a 1980s ball control strategy through your rushing attack, at least reap the benefits of your opponent stacking the box with play action. This 2nd and goal play is a walk in touchdown if they leak a tight end. Instead, they run the ball strong side into a ten man box (basically the equivalent of when you select punt block in Madden) for no gain because there is simply no chance of blocking that many football players at once.
While Ian Book was put in an awful situation by the play calling and he was elite when given a clean pocket, he got back into his old habit of pulling his eyes off receivers downfield to evade pressure that sometimes was not there. We do all of our analysis using broadcast film, so it is admittedly difficult for us to determine whether receivers were open or not (something we will hopefully investigate ourselves this summer). For now, we will rely on Pro Football Focus data to determine this, and PFF was not kind to Book. PFF data suggests Book was primarily responsible for 4 of the 6 sacks he took, as well as 5 out of the 15 pressures. While it was not a great day for our offensive line or anyone tasked with pass blocking, Book also made their lives difficult with impatience and happy feet in the pocket. Passing is not perfect, but this Irish team can throw against anyone (even those in Crimson Tide uniforms) if Ian Book gets comfortable in the pocket.
This pressure and Book’s discomfort in the pocket ruined Notre Dame’s deep passing game. The Irish did not attempt a deep pass in the first half and did not complete either of the deep passes attempted in the second half. Ian Book’s average depth of target was 7.8 in this game compared to 13 in the first Clemson game. It is extremely difficult to get receivers open downfield when you throw mostly in obvious passing situations and don’t run play action, as well as when your quarterback is uncomfortable staying in the pocket and letting late routes develop.
Many have told us that not running the football with your running back early in a football game is something people do in video games and is not possible in real life. Well, Clemson took our exact advice from the preview and it paid dividends. On Clemson’s first three drives, Etienne received the football twice on 16 plays. Instead, they opted to put the ball in Lawrence’s hands 14 times, including 5 play action passes and 2 play action throws of over 33 yards. Once they connected on the 67 yard play action bomb to Amari Rodgers, the Irish backed off of the line to provide more help over the top. Once the Irish committed to this strategy, they unleashed Lawrence and Etienne on the ground and gashed the Irish run defense seemingly at will.
There were plenty of flaws with the Irish defense to gripe about. Their deep passing defense remains a massive problem, they seemed completely unprepared to deal with Lawrence as a runner, and they struggled tackling at key junctures. However, I am quicker to give credit to Clemson’s offense than to assign blame to Irish defenders. Clemson has spectacular offensive weapons, and they came in with a coherent, multi-staged game plan that built upon what they learned in the first matchup. They attacked the Irish early with what worked last time, and then used that to win the game with what did not work last time: running the football. We do not hate running the ball. We hate running the ball for the sake of running the ball. If you want to watch what giving your running back a chance to succeed looks like, re-watch Clemson again. They gave Etienne ten carries. You probably don’t realize that because he had by far the best performance against this defense of any running back this year and it is not even close. In this era of college football if you don’t enter a game against an elite team with a coherent offensive plan that is intended to light up the scoreboard you might as well not even get off the bus, and Notre Dame learned this lesson the hard way in Charlotte.
There is light at the end of the tunnel here. Notre Dame could have been in the game if they chose to play a 2020 style of football like Clemson did. While admittedly the Irish do not have athletes like Amari Rodgers or Cornell Powell at receiver or Trevor Lawrence under center, it was choosing to sit on the football until it was too late that did them in. If Notre Dame learns from both this game and the admirable effort Florida put forth against Alabama last weekend by passing a ton and throwing ball control out the window, Notre Dame will have a good chance to put forth an effort we can all be proud of against Alabama. If they do this again, expect to be laughed off another big stage into the offseason.