Our new Notre Dame Fighting Irish distribution charts show the efficiency of pass and run plays in various situations. To understand the charts, if you pick a place on the X-axis and draw a vertical line upwards, the shaded area to the left of that line would represent the % of plays that resulted in less than the EPA number at that point on the x-axis (this will make more sense looking at the graphs, we promise). For an explanation of EPA, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
The first thing to learn is how dependent on big plays offenses are. The mean is far higher than the median for both running and passing, showing that big positive plays are impacting the average far more than big negative plays. Running is far more centered around zero, with passing plays causing slightly more extremely negative outcomes and far more extremely positive outcomes.
Notre Dame was much better throwing the football than running, with the team posting higher mean and median EPA/Pass than the mirroring rushing figures. Many believe that due to interceptions and sacks passing has a much lower floor than running the football. While this can be true for some teams, a passing offense would have to be incredibly turnover prone for this to offset the big plays passing the football creates that rushing often does not. Fumbles, big losses, and runs for little gain encompassed a lot more of Notre Dame’s rushes than most people probably realize and didn’t produce the number of explosive plays to offset that like passing offense did.
All of this pro-passing talk completely evaporates around the goal line. Notre Dame was spectacular running the football near the end zone, and while passing was sometimes effective it presented spectacular downside risk that running did not. This makes sense, as each yard becomes far more valuable around the goal line. On 1st and Goal from the Opponent’s 7, a 2 Yard run is a far more effective play than an incomplete pass. From your own 25 yard line on 1st and 10, they are extremely similar outcomes. Essentially, Notre Dame’s offensive line was so talented they could re-establish the line of scrimmage and get three yards essentially no matter how many players were in the box, and this is far more valuable inside the ten or five than anywhere else on the field. While passing occasionally near the goal line is key to remaining unpredictable (HINT: PLAY ACTION), running the football near the goal line was where the strength of the Irish offensive line really shined last season and was rightfully featured.
This running dominance continued in short yardage situations, converting 79% of 3rd/4th and Short (3 or fewer Yards to Go). This may be counter-intuitive, but we believe this means the Irish should have passed on second and short more often. This is because with the Irish offensive line strength, running the football twice on third and fourth down with two yards or less to go would have been almost guaranteed to result in a first down (having a 79% chance of converting on two straight plays moves the sticks about 96% of the time). Knowing that these future plays are extremely likely to convert a first down, the Irish should have looked for for explosive chunk plays down the field on 2nd and short. As we said, passing leads to more dispersed outcomes. While it’s possible a sack could set you back, it’s more likely that a massive play could change the game in the Irish’s favor. By coaching Book to get rid of the football quickly on these plays if his first or second read was not present, the Irish could have taken advantage of their dominant run game by taking risks on 2nd and short and only throwing the ball if receivers gained separation down the field. Book did have issues holding on to the football, taking sacks, and running out of bounds for a loss instead of throwing it away so that might have been a contributing factor to the conservativeness. If the Notre Dame offensive line is as dominant in short yardage situations next season (unlikely but possible), we’ll be back advocating for a more aggressive mindset in these situations.
Admittedly the Irish were not great passing in these exact 2nd and short situations we are advocating for more deep passing on, but with more coaching emphasis and a generally more aggressive mindset this could flip from a weakness to a strength.
The Irish offensive line was excellent last season, and they deserve all of the accolades and draft consideration they are receiving. However, this manifested far more in short yardage situations rather than running for explosiveness in all situations. Not because they weren’t good, but because of running plays into stacked boxes over and over and over. We’ll have an exciting project soon analyzing this further, in which we went back and re-watched every game again to record data on how the Irish run game fared against different box counts. Keep an eye out for that project and much more here on One Foot Down and on twitter @ND_FB_Analytics.