Notre Dame escaped Toledo with a last-minute win, raising a lot of questions in the process. While winning by 3 as a 17-point favorite was disappointing, there were some bright spots during the game and the Rockets’ performance was pretty lucky and unsustainable at times Follow along as we break down why the outcome may not be as disappointing as it was on first watch (and hold off on your “It was Toledo, we should’ve won by a million” takes until the end). For more information on the statistics we will be using, please check out this analytics primer that explains our methodology.
This game was all over the map, as every time something went Notre Dame’s way Toledo would answer back with a big play of their own. As the Irish were beginning to settle in just before halftime, Jack Coan threw a pick six. When Notre Dame looked to be putting the game away in the 4th Quarter, Toledo breaks off a 67-yard run leading to a touchdown, and on the very next possession force a Kyren Williams fumble when the Irish are close to running out the clock. While credit is due to Toledo for capitalizing on their opportunities, converting on this many big plays while being otherwise inefficient is an unsustainable way to play.
Jack Coan didn’t have his best game, finishing with 0.05 EPA/play and a 62.4 PFF grade. He missed some open receivers forcing the ball to Michael Mayer and the interception was a glaring mistake, but he did save his day a little bit by leading the game-winning drive. Part of the regression from a likely unsustainable Florida State performance was a step back in his performance throwing 10-19 yards downfield. After completing 83% of his passes for 1.51 EPA/play against Florida State, he only connected on 38% for an average of 0.45 EPA. Despite Coan’s up-and-down game and the interception, the Notre Dame passing attack was the most efficient unit in the game and the only one of both teams to finish with positive EPA. With the state of the Irish rushing attack - more on that later - they may need to lean into the pass more than even we thought they ever would.
A note on Tyler Buchner. While his performance was electric and he showed he deserves a role on this team, we didn’t see enough from him as a passer to have an opinion yet on whether he should start, with only 3 pass attempts and an aDOT of 4.3. Clearly he has earned a role on this team at the very least as a situational weapon in short-yardage and the red-zone. However Notre Dame will likely need to change their play calling for him if he is going to be on the field for more than a play at a time. Tommy Rees called for a 23% pass rate with Buchner under center. It worked against Toledo because it was his college debut and they didn’t know what to expect, but future defenses will begin to key in on the run if Rees doesn’t counter with more drop backs for the prized Freshman.
Although Coan himself might not have had his best day, the pass-catchers put up another quality performance. Every receiver except for Lorenzo Styles produced positive EPA and a success rate of 50% or higher on their targets. Avery Davis also appeared on the box score a week after we asked for him to be more involved. And he responded with 0.87 EPA and 11 yards per play. He has the potential to be an elite slot weapon, so it was encouraging to see him get some opportunities with the ball in his hand. Putting up the performance with an aDOT of 3.8 suggests he could be a go-to option for Coan or Buchner underneath with the likes of Mayer, Lenzy, and Austin stretching the field.
And credit where credit’s due, Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree put up another efficient performance through the air. We were skeptical of their increased role in the passing offense, as targets to Running Backs are generally less efficient than those to Wide Receivers and Tight Ends. But after another efficient day with both averaging over 1 EPA/target, if they can keep up this level of performance it will help offset the woes of the rushing attack.
In addition to Avery Davis, our other call to action was for Tommy Rees to utilize play action more heavily. And he responded with a 35% rate on drop backs compared to 24% against Florida State, taking advantage of the cheat code that is the play-fake. The offense’s performance on non-play-action throws is a little concerning but the Irish were at 0.24 EPA/play on such throws against the Seminoles. As long as they can be positive on those plays and continue to use play action as a focal point of the offense, they should be fine.
Notre Dame’s rushing attack continues to be abysmal, and most of the blame can be placed at the feet of the Offensive Line. While they have been excellent protecting the Quarterback, ranking 14th in PFF Pass Block Grade, they are abysmal paving holes for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, ranking 95th in Run Block Grade. The most concerning issue is the Irish can’t even run on light boxes. Against Toledo, they faced a 6-Man Box 9 times and averaged -0.97 EPA and 1.7 yards, good for an 11% success rate. And when they had a hat on a hat (meaning Notre Dame has the same number of blockers in the box as the opponent has defenders) they averaged -0.62 EPA and 3.5 yards, good for a 36% success rate. Credit to Tommy Rees, Notre Dame did have an early down pass rate of 58%, up from 43% last season. The problem is, unless the run-blocking shows some massive improvement, it still might not be enough, and Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees may need to be comfortable being uncomfortable and start to air it out even more.
When you look at the Toledo box score, you wouldn’t figure this game came down to the last drive. Devin Maddox had a great game averaging 0.83 EPA and 15 yards on 9 targets, but nobody else really did anything of note. Both Quarterbacks put up negative EPA and starting running back Bryant Koback did the same. In reality, this game was close because of some offensive woes and some luck that went Toledo’s way that we talked about earlier. Keep in mind the defense only gave up 22 Points with the other 7 coming on Coan’s Pick-6. And while getting a stop was preferable, Dequan Finn’s late fourth quarter touchdown run was actually good for Notre Dame given that they were already close to Field Goal range. If he had taken a knee on the 1-Yard Line Notre Dame loses, since the Irish only had one timeout remaining and Toledo could essentially run out the clock and kick a 20-yard field goal.
Now take a look at Toledo’s offensive performance by down. Marcus Freeman’s unit had a field day on early downs, with the Rockets averaging -0.39 EPA/Play and a 22% success rate overall. One of our concerns coming into the game was Toledo’s heavy use of Play Action and whether Notre Dame would fall prey to it as Clark Lea’s units had the tendency to last season. But Freeman’s defense responded well, performing almost identically on Play Action throws as non-PA ones. The Rockets also converted only 41% of their third downs, and really just took advantage of poor tackling by the Irish Defense on some runs. While the continued allowance of big rushing plays is concerning, at some point players need to just make a play and Brian Kelly after the game stressed the importance of fundamentals.
The larger concern is the continued vulnerability on the back end of the secondary. When Toledo threw less than 20 yards downfield, Notre Dame performed really well and were able to shut down the Rockets, funneling most of the plays to a depth of 9 yards or less. But as was the case last year, they continue to allow big plays down the field and offenses continue to be extremely efficient when doing so. Last season Clark Lea’s defense gave up over 1 EPA/play when thrown at 20+ yards downfield. On Saturday Toledo completed 2 of 4 passes for an average of 1.57 EPA and 22.2 yards. The secondary was ours and many others’ biggest concern with the defense coming into the season. They’ve held up fine when they’re able to keep things in front of them but if they continue to allow a high percentage of throws to be completed deep, it could offset the gains they’ve made at the other levels of the field. But even with the big plays Notre Dame allowed negative EPA against both the run and the pass. So while there was still room for improvement, it was a good performance from Freeman’s group.
One interesting thing we wanted to note at the end here is the number of light boxes Freeman presented Toledo with. On 20 of 22 runs Notre Dame lined up with 6 or fewer players in the box and they have done so on 88% of run plays on the season. It seems that Freeman is trying to incentivize teams to run, whether that’s to cover for vulnerabilities in the secondary or because he knows rushing is less efficient than passing remains to be seen, but this is a very welcome development because of the latter point. Keep an eye on this over the next few weeks, especially as Notre Dame faces more potent passing offenses.
While the final score was certainly a disappointment, the game wasn’t all that close. According to Bill Connelly of ESPN, Notre Dame had a 91% postgame win probability because of their large efficiency advantage and being on the wrong side of some turnover luck. The offense has some questions to answer and may need to adapt to a more aerial attack, but the defense played well and rest assured the sky isn’t falling.