After losing an emotionally draining game to Georgia, Notre Dame faced a potential letdown coming home against an undefeated and ranked Virginia team. It was a must win game to keep their College Football Playoff aspirations afloat, and the Irish took care of business by riding strong defense and key takeaways to a win. Please follow this link to the first installment of this series for a primer on the advanced analytics we will use to break this game down further.
The Cavaliers scored quickly, only to squander that lead right back to the Irish on the next possession. The Irish controlled play in the second, but a seventy-six yard Cavalier drive in just one minute and two seconds to close the second quarter caused that massive dip in Irish win probability before halftime.
The Cavaliers had three fumbles in the second half, two of which with massive returns that led to huge swings in win probability towards Notre Dame. Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara combined for 5.5 sacks in this one after combining for just 1 in the first three games of the season. These defensive plays were critical to the Irish win, and it was great to see Okwara and Kareem at the high level they are capable of playing at.
Starting with Virginia this time because it was the Irish defense that carried the water. Bryce Perkins was one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in college football rushing last season. He ran for 769 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 0.12 EPA per rush, but the Irish completely neutralized him in the rushing game. His EPA was horrible and well below his season average, largely due to the costly fumbles at critical junctures in the second half. Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois had excellent games for the Cavaliers, but outside of them the aerial attack was not good enough to overcome the turnovers and inconsistency from the running game. The UVA offense was predicated on Perkins getting going on the ground, and that did not happen in the slightest in this one.
Tony Jones was more effective than the rest of the running back room in this one. Jones had ten of the thirteen successful designed runs for the Irish, running well behind an offensive line performing far better than it did the week prior. And yet, the passing was still more successful and efficient than rushing for the Irish because every player not named Tony Jones struggled so much to run the ball. Even Ian Book had struggles getting anything going on the ground, although sample size is something to keep in mind with only five carries on the game and only one designed run. Without Jafar Armstrong the Irish had no quality backfield depth and that showed in this game.
Ian Book was effective passing, with short passes once again doing most of the damage. The Irish interestingly ignored mid range passing in this game, opting for short throws and a few throws of over twenty yards. It appeared the Irish strategy of getting the ball out of Book’s hands quickly carried over into this game, with more success than the Georgia game but not a ton more. The thirty-five points the Irish put up were largely due to their defense putting them in positions to score, and the Irish still had a ton of work to do improving their pass blocking and Book’s ability throwing into pressure.
Cole Kmet had another excellent performance in his second game back. He added over six expected points on just four receptions, an incredible efficiency that makes one wonder why he was not force fed the ball even more aggressively. It was a less effective week for Chase Claypool despite the fact that he had the most receptions of any player. Tony Jones also had a great catch out of the backfield, the second straight week where he looked more threatening as a receiver than he typically did as a running back. If Jones could have been paired with another effective back and focused more on passing work I think he could have really been an asset on offense, but he was miscast as a workhorse all purpose back.
Taking this point about throwing into pressure further, look at how different Book’s stats were in those situations. Pressured drop backs put the Irish offense in reverse and fast, losing not only a significant amount of points but also yards. On drop backs without pressure Book had a very good day with 0.46 EPA/Play (Joe Burrow averaged 0.53 EPA/Play in 2019). Play action was also rendered ineffective by pressure as Book struggled to get his eyes downfield. The Irish offense was fine in this game, but it was the defense that put them in positions to score.
The Irish struggled out of the shotgun in this game, doing far better keeping the ball under center and in the pistol. The coaches seemed to notice this, as this game had the lowest share of plays out of the shotgun of any game. The Irish also did their best in three or more wide receiver sets, struggling out of their 12 (for the fourth week two tight end sets did not generate positive expected points) and 21 sets. The 10 formation specifically with Cole Kmet split out wide was extremely effective, allowing Kmet to work his way into the creases of the UVA defense in the middle of the field where Book is most comfortable throwing.