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College Football: Notre Dame Fighting Irish VS Wisconsin Badgers Analytics Preview

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Analytics to Make Sense of a Weird Betting Line (Hint: It Doesn’t Make Sense)

Purdue v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Notre Dame has finished off the preseason portion of the schedule undefeated, with a lot of questions that have been left unanswered as well as raising some new ones. We’ll find out answers to them soon enough as the Irish begin a gauntlet 5-game stretch in Chicago against the Wisconsin Badgers. Read on for all of the key advanced stats you need to know as we breakdown this matchup. For a better understanding of how these stats work, please follow this link to our analytics primer.

Even despite last week’s up-and-down performance Notre Dame still has a Top-50 passing offense in terms of EPA/Play. Avery Davis, our breakout candidate prior to the season, has emerged as a bonafide slot weapon after last week and gives Jack Coan yet another quality option in the passing game. And the timing could not have been better, with the Badgers entering the game with the 2nd best run defense in EPA/Allowed and averaging a measly 3.6 Yards/Carry. Despite their talent, Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree haven’t been able to get anything going on the ground due to the poor run-blocking in front of them, with the line ranking 61st in PFF Run Block grade. They improved their standing after Purdue but it is still a significant step back from the lines of the past few years. We’ve mentioned this in our last couple articles so we won’t go in depth on it, but the pass blocking concern is pretty overblown right now. They did play poorly last week with Coan under pressure on over 40% of his dropbacks, but they currently rank 24th in PFF Pass Block grade. The issue is his sack rate is up dramatically and he is taking a higher amount of sacks than expected based on the pressure he faces. Regardless, the pass blocking and Coan’s ability to avoid sacks is the biggest key to success tomorrow. Wisconsin has a Top 30 PFF Pass Rush grade and will be the best unit the Irish offensive line has faced to date.

I wouldn’t read too much into the EPA numbers right now, as last week’s performance is significantly skewing the Wide Receiver stats. Notre Dame had 5 drops against Purdue, the most notable one being the Braden Lenzy drop in the end zone. The bigger takeaway is Jack Coan has been efficient throwing to all 3 position groups, and the Running Backs in particular are especially notable. Now, they do have the lowest median EPA/Play and the reason for them having the highest mean EPA/Play is hitting on many big plays. Will regression begin to hit or can they develop into even better passing options? We’ll find out soon enough.

Wisconsin comes into the game with a good rushing offense but one that will be overhyped by counting stats due to their insane 68% run rate on early downs. Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi is the lead back and has put up solid but underwhelming numbers considering the praise Wisconsin has been getting. Isaac Guerendo has actually been the more impressive player in limited action, running for nearly 10 Yards and 0.35 EPA per Carry. But nonetheless, the Badgers rushing attack has not been not that special on a play-by-play basis. The biggest question obviously is whether Notre Dame’s run defense will be able to hold up. They’ve been slightly below average in EPA/Play but borderline elite when looking at Success Rate and also rank 32nd in PFF Run Defense. The question is how do they change schematically from the 3-man front with light boxes they’ve used the first three weeks to a team that likes to run power offense. The passing offense has also been pretty bad after Wisconsin chose Graham Mertz as their quarterback over Jack Coan. Danny Davis III has been a quality option, averaging over 1 EPA/Play and posting an 81.9 PFF Grade. But no other regular pass catcher has a PFF Grade over 70 and if the Badgers continue to be so run-dominant, it’s not as big of a concern with how the Irish secondary has held up so far.

We’re working through some data issues for seasons before 2021, so take the 2020 data with a grain of salt. But so far in his career it hasn’t worked out for the former highly touted recruit. An easy excuse would be Wisconsin running so much sets him up in many 3rd & Longs, but Jack Coan played in the same offense and is putting up almost identical numbers this year as his 2019 season as a Badger. Wisconsin has also run Play Action only 15.5% with Mertz under center, which is shockingly low as a team as run-heavy as them. This also isn’t skewed by their blowout of Eastern Michigan, because when they faced Penn State they only utilized the run-fake on 17.5% of dropbacks. All of this isn’t to say Notre Dame should run Cover Zero all game and be completely unafraid of Mertz, but rather, as we discuss below, this betting line makes no sense.

Cooper: Based on the betting markets, Wisconsin has an implied win probability of 70%. This is despite:

  1. Having a run-first offense that is good relative to other rushing offenses is nothing to write home about
  2. Having a struggling passing attack with a quarterback who ranks 110th in PFF Passing Grade and has more Turnover Worthy Throws than Big Time Throws (PFF Stat)
  3. Has a good defense, but one that is better against the run than the pass when Notre Dame is looking to throw more

We’re currently working on our own betting model so we can’t give you our probability of an Irish victory. And maybe we’re just completely missing something but none of this makes any sense, I would place the probability closer to 50-50. I’m predicting Notre Dame to both cover the spread and win outright.

Jack: I see this game as a relative toss up. The Irish have their fair share of question marks, but this is a Wisconsin team with a home loss and a quarterback I’m yet to be fully sold on. I am absolutely taking Notre Dame +6.5 (my strongest lean of the season so far) and while I think the game is basically 50-50 I’ll take the Irish to win it since Brian Kelly has been very good against college football’s upper middle class since 2017.