Notre Dame came up way short at the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years, leaving fans to wonder if the Irish have reached their ceiling as CFP participants. While even qualifying for the Playoff twice is a mark of excellent coaching and something only four other programs can claim, we believe the Irish need to redesign their offensive philosophy if they want a chance at winning these games once they get there. For more context on the stats we’ll use to breakdown this game, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Knowing that you have to stay in the game to play ball control, and knowing that Alabama’s offense is likely to score regardless of where they take over possession, punting on 4th and 5 near midfield already down 7-0 was an indefensible coaching decision, especially considering the previous play was a run on 3rd and 8. Even pinning Alabama on their own three yard-line did not stop them from scoring an easy touchdown and putting the game away at 14-0. In most games we would be fine with a 4th and 5 punt, but against one of the best offenses in college football history it essentially meant giving up before the game had even really started. After this awful decision, the only glimmer of hope the Irish had was a third quarter drive spoiled by an Ian Book interception. Once the Tide took over up 21-7, the rout was officially on.
For the first time in months passing and rushing essentially averaged a similar efficiency level. It was Kyren Williams’ most efficient rushing day in weeks, and an overall fairly lackluster performance from Ian Book. One thing to notice about rushing: the Irish were by far the most efficient running on third and short and fourth and short. The Irish picked up four first downs on the ground, which is great as we all know this offensive line was excellent in tight situations all year. This same success did not translate on early downs, as the Irish continued to struggle to run for explosiveness. 7 of 11 runs on 1st and 10 resulted in 2nd and Longs. It is also worth noting that the two most important plays for the Irish (Kyren punching in a 4th and goal run and the Ian Book interception) both skewed the numbers in the direction of running. These huge impact plays can bias the data, as the median pass was still far more efficient than the median run. However, these plays did happen and must be considered in the data. It was Kyren Williams’ most efficient game in months and he does deserve credit for that.
Notre Dame still made some head scratcher decisions to run instead of pass. We developed a new metric called Expected Pass Rate, that predicts how often an average team would pass in the same situation. We can then evaluate how aggressive or conservative the coaching staff was. And boy, were they conservative. For the game Notre Dame’s Expected Pass Rate was 48%, they threw 43% of the time. They threw 11% less than expected on 1st and 10 and didn’t throw on 2nd Down unless there were 7 or more yards to gain. The 3rd and 7 quarterback power that set up the 4th and 5 punt was confusing, but after looking at this chart it’s clear Notre Dame was never going to take risks in this game.
While we said in our preview that the only path to winning this game was throwing a ton, and we do still feel that way, this was conditional on Ian Book playing at the level he played in the stretch between the first Clemson game and the end of the regular season. Unfortunately, that did not materialize on Friday. Book struggled to get comfortable in the pocket from the onset, and did not wait in the pocket long enough for routes to develop. The coaches share some blame for this, as their stated gameplan to get Kyren Williams 10 catches played a role in Ian Book’s measly aDOT of 5.1 (it was 7.6 was filtering out Kyren’s targets). However, Book played into this as well repeatedly preferring scrambling and checkdowns over risks downfield. Book’s Pro Football Focus grade of 55.4 was his worst of the season, and was not even close to what Notre Dame needed to win this game.
This wasn’t all on Book, as almost everyone on offense played far below their standards. The offensive line gave up pressure on over half of their pass blocking snaps, and PFF only credited Book with 2 pressures from holding the ball too long. Zeke Correll alone gave up 5 pressures from the center position, and every linemen except for Liam Eichenberg finished with a grade below 60 (Replacement Level).
One final point on Kyren’s pass game usage, many tell us the Irish can not make adjustments week to week or change their run pass mix week to week as it would sully the Irish offense’s identity. Williams caught twice as many passes this week as any game this year just because the Irish offensive staff thought this was a good strategy and said so during the week. We necessarily don’t disagree with this strategy, but it is worth noting it’s more strong evidence that offensive identity is a choice. Williams was not emphasized in the passing game most of the season and wasn’t that efficient either, but he was Alvin Kamara (stylistically, at least) on Friday. That’s fine, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future before saying that the game plan can’t be tweaked against elite teams out of fear of losing your identity.
Finally, the Irish once again refused to use play action even though it was working for them in a limited sample. This has been a theme in the second half of the season and is something that needs to be addressed in 2021.
Alabama leans heavily on the RPO (run-pass option). This is a play where Mac Jones puts the ball in Najee Harris’ hands and reading the defense, then making a decision whether to complete the handoff or pull the ball out and make a quick throw. This is not true play action, but we counted any passing play that featured a fake give as play action. These plays simply destroyed Notre Dame. They gave up 17.7 yards per play action play, and this was honestly where the recruiting mismatch bore its head the most. Defending the RPO was going to require one on one tackles in space, and the Tide’s playmakers were just faster and more athletic than the Irish defenders. Devonta Smith especially feasted on these plays, averaging a ludicrous 2.36 EPA/reception on a shallow aDOT of 7. This RPO game allowed the Tide to average 1.17 EPA/pass on throws behind the line of scrimmage, and march up and down the field with relative ease.
This ease can be shown in how they avoided third down. Before the game entered garbage time when Alabama went up 28-7 midway through the third quarter, Alabama had faced just three third downs out of fifteen sets of downs. That’s simply ridiculous third down avoidance, and shows what an all-time elite offense this was.
Despite all of these positives for Alabama’s offense, Notre Dame came up with two huge stops on Alabama’s first five drives. While giving up 21 points on 5 drives is not what Clark Lea’s defense is accustomed to, this is not bad for a College Football Playoff game in this era, and especially against this offense. As we explained in our preview, you can only hope to contain Alabama, you can’t stop them. And whether they throttled down in the 2nd half is a question we won’t fully find the answer (although it sure seems like they did after going up 28-7), but the defense provided enough stops for the offense to stay in this game.
The Irish remain trapped a full tier behind the top contenders. The largest issue is likely a recruiting difference, but intentionally running a non-explosive offense exacerbates that gap. In this era, ball control is not a viable strategy against elite teams. It has been years since a team won a championship playing that way. Notre Dame may not have the wide receiver talent to be as explosive as elite teams, but they need to attempt to come as close as they can, or accept that this is going to continue to happen. And it’s very possible Notre Dame is closing themselves off from top Quarterback and Wide Receiver recruits each year simply due to their preferred style of play. Last week, Aaron Suttles of The Athletic mentioned Alabama didn’t consistently get the best quarterbacks and receivers each year until they switched from a run-oriented offense to an aerial attack. The Irish have established themselves as a perennial Top Ten program, and Brian Kelly deserves plenty of credit for that. Perhaps this is the ceiling the Irish can reach at their current recruiting level, although their 2021 recruiting class may indicate otherwise. But if we are to believe Brian Kelly that this team can be a true contender, it will require a full rebuild of the team’s offensive identity.