Between a Duke game that left a lot to be desired and a rash of pregame COVID-related absences, this game looked like a trap to many fans and media. Instead, the game was over by the end of the first quarter and for the second straight year the Notre Dame Fighting Irish blew out at an opponent 52-0 at home. The South Florida Bulls joined Bowling Green as teams that were shutout by Brian Kelly, which fitting his new persona, was not very nice of him. To learn about the analytics used in this recap and gain a baseline for the numbers, please check out our stats primer here.
The Irish left little room for doubt in this one, scoring quickly to take a full grip on the game and never looking back. Irish win probability topped 95% in the first quarter and 99% early in the second, so while no Irish games ever let you fully relax, this is about as close as we will ever get.
Even in a fifty-two point blowout, many have called Ian Book’s play into question after this week. Let’s break this down and add some much needed context to this discussion. In our preview for the game, we talked about how the strength of the USF defense was their secondary led by NFL Draft Prospect KJ Sails, fielding a borderline Top 25 pass defense last season. They allowed -0.05 EPA/Play (40th), a 36.5% Success Rate (34th), and 5.4 Yards/Play (21st) in 2019. They also had a bad run defense that we predicted Tommy Rees would be looking to exploit. As Notre Dame’s lead grew larger Rees dialed up more and more runs, going from a 71% pass rate on the opening drive to 33% for the remainder of the first half. With the emphasis on the rushing attack and play action game, Book played well in the first half averaging 0.23 EPA/Play and a 56.2% Success Rate. His overall numbers took a hit due to his one drive in the second half when the game was already out of question, where he averaged -0.56 EPA per play.
This drive tanking his statistics has to do with sample size, as he only had 16 plays at halftime and only dropped back 5 more times in the game (he had 37 against Duke and averaged 29 during the 2019 season). Irish fans are likely frustrated with Book because he hasn’t and likely won’t take the next step into becoming an elite quarterback. If that step was going to happen it likely would’ve happened last season going into his senior year and his second year as a starter. The Joe Burrows of the world are the exception and not the rule, but that doesn’t mean Notre Dame should start looking to the future now. Book is never going to be a Trevor Lawrence or a Justin Fields and it is unfair to compare him to such players because he will always fall short of those expectations. He is a quarterback you can win with at the college level and whose play can be enhanced with optimal play calling, as the first half showed. This is not to say there is nothing to be concerned about with the passing game, but let’s tap the brakes on the apocalypse for now.
The USF run defense was as porous as advertised in our preview and the Irish running backs feasted. Kyren Williams was excellent to start the game, with Chris Tyree providing an elusive change of pace. C’Bo Flemister established himself as the third running back on the depth chart, looking like a completely different player running against a bad USF defense. Rushing was more efficient than passing this weekend, although this at least partially due to the matchup.
Tommy Tremble was excellent as a receiver and a blocker. Interestingly, no wide receiver was targeted deeper down the field than Tremble with an aDOT of 16.3. He ran fast routes getting to the sidelines and looked comfortable working down the field. His athleticism and ability to run vertical routes is a matchup nightmare for the defense, as he possesses the size and strength of a tight end but moves like a wide receiver downfield.
Wide receiver remains a problem. It was good to see Braden Lenzy back, although he was still not as involved in the offense as we hoped. The Irish threw no passes behind the line of scrimmage in this game, but in the future hopefully Lenzy can get his speed involved in the screen game. Javon McKinley had the most targets and aDOT of 11 yards but struggled to create separation and struggled to connect with Book on back shoulder throws. Joe Wilkins was the surprise of last weekend, but was mostly uninvolved in this game. With two preseason starters still out in Skowronek and Austin, a position group that was already an area of weakness is looking very suspect.
That’s enough negativity from a 52-0 win, look at that play action rate! After a week where we advocated for a far higher play action rate in the preview, Tommy Rees listened and doubled the play action rate from the Duke game to 37.5%. In that same article, we pushed for a higher amount of first down throwing. The Irish threw thirteen times on first down, generating their highest EPA of throwing on any down.
First, Tommy we did not know you were a reader but thanks for checking out our writing and putting it to action. Seriously though, these are both excellent developments for the Irish offense. Play action passes are the most efficient play in football and is the easiest way to increase passing efficiency. The Irish were truly unpredictable on offense in this one (well early on before it got out of hand), and if the play calling continues to trend in this direction Ian Book no longer has the excuse that Rees is not putting him in a position to succeed.
Our key to the game defensively was to force Jordan McCloud to throw by shutting down the run game. With running averaging negative EPA on all three downs, it’s fair to say Clark Lea achieved this goal and then some. The Bulls struggled mightily throwing in obvious passing situations on third down and long, and were put into these situations all afternoon by their inability to run on early downs. This was the exact defensive recipe against Duke, except this time the Irish were missing key defensive players due to COVID testing. It didn’t matter, with Jack Kiser, Clarence Lewis, and other fresh faces stepping up as the next man in and getting the job done. Clark Lea is the best defensive coordinator in the country and it’s likely we won’t be seeing him around South Bend much longer.
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