Notre Dame completed their second undefeated regular season in three years, winning a sloppy but decisive win over Syracuse 45-21. The Irish showed some weaknesses on both sides of the ball, but did more than enough to win the game and will have two weeks to work out the kinks before taking on Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers.
Before diving into these stats we need to re-explain some statistics. First, we count scrambles as passing plays because we want to learn which play calls are working. A successful or unsuccessful scramble from Ian Book is the result of a passing play call, and should be classified as such. Second, we only count non-garbage time statistics in these recaps. Garbage time is when a game is non-competitive, and is classified as when a team is up by 43 in the first quarter, 37 in the second quarter, 27 in the third quarter, and 22 in the fourth. This is Bill Connelly’s definition, ESPN’s College Football Analytics guru. As a result, you will not see Chris Tyree’s garbage time touchdown run as well as other plays included in these stats since we are only focused on what Notre Dame and its opponent do when the game is competitive. For even more definitions and context on our statistics, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
This chart does not take team strength into play, so the Irish appeared to be in serious danger of losing this in the first half. The roughing the passer penalty turned the tide, with that penalty alone adding eight percentage points to Notre Dame’s win probability. That drop from Syracuse leading a close game to Notre Dame in full control directly before the half is the largest swing we’ve seen in Irish win probability all year. While this graph appears nerve wracking, ESPN’s model that factors in team strength never had the Irish below 84.4% win probability, which is probably more consistent with how most Irish fans felt watching the team start slow.
Let’s start with what got us in trouble on Twitter. The Irish were bad at running the football in this game, plain and simple. They ran for -0.19 EPA rush (the -0.45 incorporates the botched snap and resulting fumble as a run play and assigns the -5.55 EPA to Ian Book). They did not rush for positive EPA in either half, and running with Kyren Williams was not efficient at -0.17 EPA/play. Notre Dame is simply not an elite running team since the South Florida game, as teams continue to stack the box to stop an offense more than willing to run into it. The Irish simply can not continue to run into stacked boxes because it does not set up play action, score points, or do anything that leads to scoring points. None of this is to say running the ball does not have a role. The Irish are usually excellent at running in short yardage situations, converting 79% of short yardage opportunities (3rd/4th down with 3 or fewer yards to go) this season, good for 21st in the country. Kyren Williams is a spectacular running back, with a PFF grade of 75.3 on the season. However, Notre Dame’s current gameplan is not putting Kyren in a position to thrive and instead is often forcing him to make multiple defenders miss just to gain 5 yards. Tommy Rees will need to find a way to make running more efficient through spreading the field to scheme up lighter boxes, or should lean more on early down passing the rest of the way.
The Irish were excellent on passing plays, although this was largely Ian Book torching Syracuse by scrambling. Book scrambled for a completely ridiculous 2.1 EPA/play (not a typo) on five scrambles including two touchdowns and four first downs converted. As we all know, Book is extremely dangerous on the ground but surprisingly did not get a designed carry on Saturday. This was likely to keep him healthy in a game unlikely to be competitive, but against good teams we would like to see him get more designed run plays. The coaching staff has already figured this out as Book had six designed runs in the first Clemson game. Expect Notre Dame to try and get the ball in the hands of their best player (IAN BOOK) as often as they can in the rematch.
The Irish struggled to push the ball down the field against a solid Syracuse secondary. We mentioned in the preview the secondary was underrated, and they made it almost impossible for the Irish to attack vertically. Unless your name is Javon McKinley that is. McKinley is an NFL caliber wide receiver and it was excellent to see him shine on senior day. The analytics and eye test agree, McKinley is unbelievable. Michael Mayer was somewhat inefficient this week and made some freshman mistakes running out of first downs a couple of times but remains an elite option. It will be interesting to see how Avery Davis is deployed against Clemson, as he made some spectacular plays in the first matchup but has not been highly targeted in the last two weeks. That is the only thing we are worried about from this game, as Braden Lenzy seems to have eaten into his snaps. Lenzy’s potential and athleticism are tantalizing but coming into the game Avery Davis was Notre Dame’s most efficient offensive weapon. Hopefully this deployment was more trying to get Lenzy up to speed than a sign that Davis is being overlooked.
We attacked the Syracuse offense viciously in our preview and we were mostly right, although the Orange did show a bit more life against Clark Lea’s defense than we expected. Exceeding our low expectations with 21 points does not mean they played well, as they generated solidly negative EPA/Play both rushing and passing by turning the ball over and making critical mistakes. Rex Culpepper’s 48.1% success rate was far higher than his 29.6% coming in, but his interception and fumbles were so costly his EPA/Play for the day was below his season average. He finished with a PFF grade in the 40s, a below replacement level performance that was very evident from the eye test.
Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley put together solid days against the Irish defense. Harris generated 6.08 EPA, by far the most productive player for the Orange. Queeley was not as frequently targeted but was also efficient at 0.58 EPA/target. Conceding the short passing may have been Clark Lea’s game plan knowing that Culpepper would be unlikely to string long drives together through accurate short passing. Whether this was planned or not, the Irish defense was not at the peak of its powers in this game, but they can not be expected to be elite in every single game. Betting against Clark Lea is throwing away money so don’t worry about the defense after one non-elite performance.
The Irish gave up a long rushing touchdown in garbage time that’s not included in these stats and conceded their first two 80 rushers of the season, but when the game was close the Irish were stout against the run. They did not concede play action either, penetrating the Syracuse offensive line with ease when given more time to get to the quarterback. Notre Dame also only blitzed 6 times on 30 drop backs (20%), indicating they are giving more help to the secondary and leaning on getting pressure with 4 or 5 defenders. Against Clemson they blitzed 42% of the time and were burned when Clemson attacked them deep. Providing help over the top and trusting Notre Dame’s front four to get pressure is a promising development going into the rematch and hopefully something we continue to see.