After seizing a win against Duke last week, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play at home once again tomorrow against the South Florida Bulls. The Bulls were a late addition to the schedule after Western Michigan had their season cancelled by the MAC, but they bring their own intrigue to South Bend. 2011 season opener aside, their offensive coordinator is Charlie Weis Jr., the son of former Irish coach Charlie Weis. He is younger than Tom Rees and nationally regarded as an up-and-coming coaching star. Their head coach is former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, so while the Bulls are a 26.5 point underdog they bring an extremely capable coaching staff with them. For a rundown on the statistics that will be used in this analysis, please follow this link to our brand new primer that will have you analyzing like a champion today.
USF OFFENSE VS ND DEFENSE
USF was abysmal throwing the ball in 2019, generating -0.23 EPA/drop back and an astoundingly low 22.8% first down rate that was among the worst in the FBS. They averaged more yards per play rushing than passing, a rarity in college football. This is driven by the play of quarterback Jordan McCloud. McCloud is extremely dangerous on the ground, generating 0.3 EPA/rush last season on sixty-three carries. However, he negated these points and then some with his awful throwing statistics. USF may have an opening here as the Irish struggled to contain Chase Brice, a far less dangerous runner, on designed runs last weekend. Last season at Florida Atlantic, Weis Jr. called pass plays 50.5% of the time, but against The Citadel he dialed up the run 57.8% of the time, so expect to see Charlie Weis Jr. try to feed McCloud in the ground game and limit his exposure as a passer.
When it is not Jordan McCloud rushing the ball it will be a combination of Kelley Joiner and Johnny Ford out of the backfield. Against The Citadel both had solid traditional stats, but Joiner was far more efficient than Ford, putting up 0.76 EPA/Carry to Ford’s -0.06. Ford had one forty-three yard run juicing his yards per carry number. Outside of this run he was not efficient, gaining 30 yards on 8 carries. so watch for Joiner to be the real threat out of the USF backfield this weekend.
Randall St. Felix and Bryce Miller are the most productive returning receivers for the Bulls, although neither eclipsed twenty-two catches last season. Miller led the way for the Bulls in the receiving game in their season opener, but it was only three catches for thirty-six yards and a total of 2.35 EPA as the Bulls emphasized the rushing attack. With the Irish front seven looking stout against the run, USF will need to be more efficient passing in this game than they have been recently or this game will not be competitive.
ND OFFENSE VS USF DEFENSE
The Bulls’ pass defense is by far their largest strength led by NFL Draft prospect cornerback KJ Sails. While USF does not play a particularly strong schedule, they were top forty across the board in advanced pass defense metrics and have many talented players in their secondary. This will be an excellent week for Irish wide receivers like Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins to continue to earn playing time with Ben Skowronek out with a hamstring and Braden Lenzy’s status somewhat mysterious. It will be interesting to see who Sails covers and how the Irish are able to fare against him down the field.
The Bulls run defense is somewhat porous, conceding one of the highest run success rates against in the FBS. Kyren Williams will get another chance to dominate after his excellent performance last weekend in both the rushing and receiving games. This is a game I want to see the Irish use their athleticism advantage by getting speedsters like Braden Lenzy and Chris Tyree running outside the tackles. I need a little bit more of that Braden Lenzy jet sweep in my life, so I’m hoping to see this back in the fold for this game.
As discussed heavily in the Duke recap, the Irish are much more efficient passing when running play action and should not be running it on so few of their drop backs. While Book was not at his best last weekend, calling more first down pass plays and mixing in more play fakes will keep the Bulls defense guessing and put Book in a position to succeed. Book’s shortcomings are certainly not all Tommy Rees’ fault, as he needs to do a better job feeling pressure and moving within the pocket. Too frequently against Duke he escaped the pocket at the first sign of pressure, causing worse outcomes as shown above. He’ll need to be calm in the pocket and trust his protection, while his wide receivers need to help him out by getting enough separation to get the ball out early. If Book can get less jittery in the pocket and comfortable getting the ball out on time, he is going to play a better game than he did against Duke.
The keys to this game are forcing McCloud to throw by stopping the Bulls’ rushing attack, and offensively taking advantage of a weak USF rushing defense with Williams and Tyree. Even against a weak USF front, emphasizing the run does not mean running plays on every first and second down, especially if the Bulls decide to load the box against the reigning ACC Running Back of the Week. If the Irish can open up the USF defense by mixing in more early down passes and committing to their play action game both the rushing and passing attacks will improve. While a backdoor cover for the Bulls is very possible, this game shouldn’t be close as the talent gap between these teams is too big. If the offense can come out firing on all cylinders at kickoff instead of after halftime, expect a (relatively) stress-free Saturday afternoon.