Notre Dame rode a dominant 4th Quarter to a blowout of the Wisconsin Badgers in Chicago on Saturday. The defense continues to assert itself as one of the premier units in the country as weeks go by. The offense, however, is a different story and questions continue to abound. We’ll try to unpack that for you here. For an explanation of the statistics we will use in this analysis, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
Wisconsin had an early win probability by virtue of taking an early lead and then again in the 3rd Quarter. But the Irish took over the game in the 4th Quarter and forced Graham Mertz to have to make plays in the air. And if you read our preview, you would know he probably is one of the quarterbacks you would not want in that type of situation, and he helped seal Notre Dame’s victory on Saturday.
Jack Coan was pressured on 29.7% of his dropbacks on Saturday (11 total times), the average is around 31%. He took 5 sacks in those situations and he took another in a CLEAN POCKET. We’ve said this for weeks, the passing offense is not being hamstrung by the offensive line, it’s Jack Coan’s lack of awareness, mobility, or both that continues to plague the Irish. He leads the country in sacks taken despite being the 51st most pressured Quarterback. It doesn’t matter how good you are as a passer, if you’re taking that many sacks it makes it really difficult to offset that big of a negative. We aren’t advocating for him to be benched but it does need to improve drastically for Notre Dame to achieve its lofty goals. Since Coan isn’t a threat in the run game and with the run blocking in the state that it’s in, he needs to be someone who can dropback 30-40 times a game. If he keeps taking this many sacks it’s just not going to work against these next few teams.
Now to the playmakers, there wasn’t much to write home about on Saturday offensively but there were 2 standout performances. Kevin Austin had a major rebound from last week at Purdue and was Notre Dame’s most valuable offensive player. Avery Davis also continued to be Mr. Reliable and is continuing to carve out a larger role in this offense.
What in the world is happening with the offensive line and their run blocking? They run just as poorly on light boxes as they do heavy boxes. And just as poorly when they’re at a numbers disadvantage to when they outnumber the opposition. Credit Tommy Rees for leaning hard into the pass, even with the issues we talked about earlier it is still more efficient than running. But unless Drew Pyne or Tyler Buchner are in the game as a threat to run, this team is going to have to be pass first, pass second, pass third for most likely the rest of the season.
One area that might be a current flaw in Rees’ offense though is his predictability in when he runs. 70% (14 of 20) designed rushes on Saturday came from 12 Personnel (1 RB, 2 TE). And from that set Notre Dame ran the ball 54% of the time. Opposing defenses may be keying in on this and bringing in extra resources to stop the run when facing these heavy sets. While they didn’t have success running from other looks in this game, it’s possible he could help out his offensive line by being more diverse in their personnel when running the ball.
Hopefully some of you were able to take advantage of our betting advice from our preview and made yourself a chunk of change. We talked about how the spread didn’t make any sense with the significant disadvantage the Badgers had at the Quarterback position. Wisconsin’s rushing attack was nothing special coming into the game, they just ran a lot more than other teams and had more impressive counting numbers. And Mertz has struggled heavily since his debut against Illinois last year, and it seems that a lot of analysts factor in his high recruiting status and disregard his actual performance in a Wisconsin uniform. Regardless, he was really bad and cost the Badgers -23.24 EPA. And all but two of their skill players finished the game with negative EPA, and the two that didn’t had a combined 2 touches in the game. After a shaky debut, Marcus Freeman’s unit has improved each week and has become one of the top defenses in the country.
The big question we had coming into the game was how did Freeman plan to attack Wisconsin. Notre Dame had mostly deployed lighter boxes with more resources dedicated to coverage up to this point. But against a team so run-heavy some adjustments seemed likely to support the front seven. The Badgers never ran the ball on a 5-man box, something we had seen the Irish do in prior weeks. And while they still showed some light boxes with only 6 defenders, Notre Dame rarely was at a disadvantage. Only on 5 of their 19 carries did Wisconsin have an extra blocker compared to the number of Irish defenders. And as we’ve seen in previous weeks, Notre Dame has been able to defend the run just fine when they don’t match up in numbers. With the Badgers not being the special running team of years past, Freeman and the Irish were able to take care of them rather easily.