The Notre Dame Fighting Irish suffered its first loss of the college football season to the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday, with the offense sputtering after Jack Coan’s interception and failing to do much of anything on the day. Coan as a result has taken a lot of flack with fans, writers, and analysts alike calling for a Quarterback change. It may be time for one as the team starts to look towards the future and needs to figure out what they have in Pyne and Buchner going forward. But if you’re expecting a drastic change in the offense’s performance simply by changing who’s under center, I would temper expectations. From what we’ve seen so far it would be unexpected for Pyne alone to elevate the level of play. It needs to start with the man who has somehow eluded criticism from the media, Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees.
Despite what our Twitter mentions might have said, this game did not get out of hand because of Jack Coan’s interception. It did keep Notre Dame from establishing the early lead but the win probability remained around 50% until Rees went ultra-conservative in his play calling against one of the best run defenses in the country (see below for more). Because of that, the game was essentially over by halftime, with the Irish digging a hole too deep for them to come out of.
Before we get into Tommy Rees let’s take a look at the players on the field, specifically Jack Coan and Drew Pyne. Pyne did produce more EPA than Coan on the day so we’ll give credit where credit’s due. But a lot of that production came off of scrambles, with Coan losing EPA because for some reason Rees thought it was smart to call a QB draw with him in the game. If we only look at pass attempts (both QBs took 1 sack so we’ll call it a wash), Coan threw for 0.22 EPA/Play compared to Pyne’s 0.08. This isn’t to discount Pyne’s rushing ability as dual-threat Quarterbacks are very valuable. But rather the point is from what we’ve seen so far Pyne isn’t a clear cut upgrade over Coan from a production standpoint.
When we charted the passes from this game Pyne did have some throws that would rival the best QBs in the country with his ability to fit the ball into tight windows. But he also had quite a few that were, quite frankly, bad from an accuracy perspective. At this point it’s unsure if this is due to a lack of chemistry with receivers or not, but take a look at Coan and Pyne’s completion percentages by Depth on the Field, and his low completion rate isn’t a result of taking a lot of shots downfield. In moving to Pyne, Notre Dame will go from a quarterback with average accuracy to one who would be one of the worst in College Football if he had enough attempts. Coan ranks 82nd out of 144 Quarterbacks in Adjusted Completion Percentage at 71%, which adds drops to a player’s completion total and removes throwaways from their attempts. Drew Pyne has an Adjusted. Completion Percentage of 57.1%, which would put him in a tie for 143rd out of 144. From a clean pocket Coan ranks 77th with an adjusted rate of 74.8%, whereas Pyne would rank 146th out of 148th if he qualified. We’d expect those numbers to rise as he gets more comfortable with his receivers and the gameplan is built around him, but nobody should be saying for certain that Pyne elevates this team from what we’ve seen so far. This leads us to our main issue with the offense, the playcalling and the reluctance to accept this Notre Dame team cannot run the ball effectively.
Above are Notre Dame’s stats from their first drive of the game. The interception was obviously costly, as the EPA numbers success, but they were able to move the ball down the field successfully as their Success Rate indicates. We said in our preview the key to the game on offense was quick passing early and often, with the Bearcats having one of the best run defenses in the country. They also have an excellent pass defense but one that was buoyed by 3rd Down performance, so throwing early and often should be the way to optimally attack them. After seeing it work on the first drive, just with an unfortunate outcome, a smart team would have trusted the process over the results and stuck with the plan.
Notre Dame was not a smart team on Saturday. On the next three drives, ending with the Tyler Buchner interception, Rees proceeded to call for runs on 10 of 13 early down plays. Only ONE(!) went for positive EPA and was successful. Coming into the game everyone and their mother knew Notre Dame could not run block to save their life, why on earth would it be a good idea against one of the best run defenses in the country, after you just passed your way down the field on Drive 1? Unsurprisingly, the Irish converted one 1st Down on 1st or 2nd Down during those drives and put themselves in 3rd Downs of 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, and 13 Yards to go. They would only convert twice. Even though it’s probably worth taking a long look at Pyne, this is why it’s unfair to blame all of the offense’s problems on Coan. Tommy Rees continually set him up to fail and completely overreacted to one interception. While Notre Dame does tend to run a lot more following their first drive, this was way off standard for them. When looking at 1st Half drives following their first possession and excluding Under 3 Minute situations, the Irish have run 59 times out of 103 early down plays (57%). Even when we only look at the first quarter, it’s 24 runs out of 47 early down plays. Quite simply this was a coaching failure, and why any progress the offense makes has to begin with changes made by Rees.
Lost in all of the anger surrounding the offense is a good performance once again from Marcus Freeman and the defense. The Cincinnati offense didn’t do much of anything all game on a play-by-play basis as they were able to contain Jerome Ford and mostly limit Desmond Ridder as a passer. The two concerns from this game though are ones that were present last year: Deep passing and rushing quarterbacks. When the secondary and linebackers were able to keep the ball in front of them, Ridder looked like just another guy. But he completed 4 of 6 passes on throws over 20 yards downfield for a whopping 1.50 EPA/Play that put the Bearcats in scoring position multiple times. And when the Irish desperately needed to hold Cincinnati to a field goal to keep it a one possession game, Ridder ran the ball into the end zone to end any chance at a comeback. Frankly, this is probably something that scheme alone can’t fix. At some point players need to play better and with the team continuing to have the same struggles under two Defensive Coordinators is a signal that shouldn’t be lost. The system is working as the Bearcats’ overall stats on the day would indicate, it just needs some better execution. But honestly this is a lot of nitpicking when Cincinnati was giftwrapped two possessions starting at Notre Dame’s 8 yardline following Buchner’s interception and their 17 following Chris Tyree’s fumble. So be really glad Notre Dame has found another elite defensive coordinator, and hope that Tommy Rees can figure it out.