Notre Dame took care of the USC Trojans with relative easy Saturday night, winning by a final score of 31-16. But there’s a lot to unpack on the offensive side of the ball, with Tommy Rees putting forth in our opinion the best performance of his tenure as Offensive Coordinator. Follow along as we breakdown this game from an analytics perspective and discuss the steps forward the offense took.
Even with USC making it a one-score game in the 4th Quarter, they never really posed a threat to the Irish from a win probability standpoint. As a result Notre Dame coasted to a relatively stress-free win against their biggest rival.
Notre Dame came out of the game throwing, following our recommendation from our preview of utilizing the quick passing game early and often against a really weak secondary. And it worked wonders, with the Irish throwing on 17 of 29 early downs in the 1st Half for 0.33 EPA/Play and a 59% Success Rate. We also predicted Michael Mayer, Kyren Williams, and Avery Davis would lead the team in targets based on the ideal strategy. Mayer and Williams did with 6 apiece and were dominant, and while Davis only had two, one went for a touchdown. Notre Dame accomplished this all with Jack Coan posting an average Depth of Target (aDOT) of 6.7 in the first two quarters. Along with attacking a vulnerable secondary, the other part of our rationale for this strategy was to neutralize a formidable pass rush led by Drake Jackson. This was also accomplished, with Coan facing pressure on only 5 of his 29 dropbacks (17.2%). The only way the 1st half could have gone better is if Kevin Austin didn’t drop the red-zone pass on the opening drive of the game.
We’ll get into the second half next, but what a game for Lorenzo Styles. If you’ve been following us for awhile you know we’ve been critical about Brian Kelly not allowing younger receivers opportunities to get onto the field. Our position has always been that while they might not be able to run a full route tree compared to your older players, some of these guys definitely have a skill set that can be utilized in 10-20 snaps a game. And that’s exactly what happened against the Trojans. Styles provided 0.69 EPA/Play and all three of his catches went for First Downs. You may not realize this but he was only on the field for 15 snaps and ran 5 routes. That means Styles was targeted on 80% of the routes he ran, a very encouraging number not only for this season but the next 2-3. And he was also Notre Dame’s highest graded player on either side of the ball, posting a PFF Grade of 91.3. It’s still too early to build up the hype, but this was a really promising and exciting development.
After building a multiple score lead in the first half, Notre Dame did as good teams should and begin to run a lot more to take some time off the clock. And Kyren Williams delivered, rushing for 0.30 EPA/Play and posting a 52% Success Rate. The offensive line was also much better with every lineman aside from Andrew Kristofic posting a PFF Run-Block grade above 70. But the fact that Logan Diggs and C’Bo Flemister both posted negative EPA (albeit on 6 total carries) is a testament to how well Kyren played and turned a lot of runs that should have gone for losses into positive EPA.
Props to Tommy Rees for an excellent performance. We for sure have been critical of his decision making, but this is hopefully a massive step in the right direction. Building a lead through the pass and then attacking the opponent on the ground to take some time off the clock is the ideal strategy, and it worked to perfection. Now, it’s important to note that this won’t work against every team. USC had one of the worst secondaries in the country and had a below average run-defense. Some weeks will require a different balance, sometimes more pass-heavy and sometimes more run-heavy. But Rees exploited USC’s weaknesses to perfection and we couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
It was a bit of a mixed bag defensively from Marcus Freeman’s unit. We’re unsure if they were underestimating Drake London’s ability or USC’s reliance on him, but in the 1st Half he averaged 0.72 EPA/Target and a 73% Success Rate on 11 plays. From watching the game it looked like they were playing a lot of single coverage on him and leaving Clarence Lewis on an island. When Lewis was the primary defender on him he gave up 6 catches on 8 targets for 98 Yards. It’s hard to tell from the broadcast tape but I (Cooper) was at the game and noticed in the second half Notre Dame started to bracket London in coverage more often and was able to keep him in check. He had 7 targets in the 3rd and 4th quarters and put up a more modest 0.27 EPA/Play and 43% Success Rate. USC did begin to run the ball better with Keontay Ingram, as he averaged 0.47 EPA/Play in the 2nd Half. But probably feeling the urgency being down two possessions they continued a pass-heavy approach after halftime. With London now properly accounted for, their Early Down passing Success Rate dropped from 60% to a more standard 46% and their Median EPA falling from 0.10 to -0.21.
Despite the early struggles defending London, Freeman did do what we expected him to and presented light boxes play after play. While the Irish did struggle containing Ingram in short-yardage and goal-line situations, they were actually fairly successful when defending the run, holding USC to negative EPA when only showing 6 defenders in the box. Being able to defend the run with fewer plays affords yourself the ability to add extra resources to the pass. It’s the perfect way to defend in this era of football, and despite the somewhat rocky start Freeman and the defense rebounded to have a solid day and keep their biggest rival at bay.