Notre Dame pulled off a nail biting victory in Tallahassee on Sunday night, allowing Florida State back into a game they appeared to have wrapped up at 38-20. In an opening game replacing so many quality players we’re inclined to take wins however they come, but the Irish will likely need to be sharper in several areas to make another run back to the College Football Playoff. For more information on the statistics we will be using, please check out this analytics primer that explains our methodology.
The Irish got a great start on Michael Mayer’s fourth down touchdown on their opening drive, but the Jashaun Corbin 89 yard touchdown threw cold water on any ideas of a wire to wire Irish blowout. Notre Dame cruised in the second half until they didn’t, choosing to play not to lose instead of to win and putting the game out of reach. They were fortunate to win the coin toss in overtime which gave them the inside lane to a road win.
Starting with the positives Jack Coan was excellent in this game. He made sharp and decisive reads, delivered the ball with accuracy, and was unflappable in pressure situations. He completed 50% of his deep balls, and 83% of his targets 10-19 yards down the field. This is a spectacular recipe for a good/great passing game. He also showed extreme confidence in his wide receivers, giving Joe Wilkins and Kevin Austin chances down the field in one on one coverage they both reeled in for momentum shifting touchdowns. For all of our praise for Ian Book, he was too hesitant to target receivers in tight coverage and give them chances deep as Coan did on Saturday. Coan’s passing EPA statistics are spectacular, and would be even better if Michael Mayer had been able to haul in either of his drops in crucial situations. Both the traditional and analytic statistics agree, Jack Coan was spectacular in Tallahassee and the Irish look to be in good shape at the quarterback position in 2021.
While Mayer’s hands may be an issue he still turned in a quality performance, drawing 11 targets and being by far Coan’s favorite target of the night. Tommy Rees was also creative with Mayer’s deployment, giving him 36 snaps at tight end, 27 snaps in the slot, and even 9 snaps out wide. While his blocking left a bit to be desired (he drew a 41.4 pass block grade and 65.0 run block grade from PFF), he’s most valuable as a receiving weapon and moving him around the formation should help cover up his blocking woes and let him shine as a receiver where he does the most damage.
We finally got to see the Kevin Austin beat writers have been raving about for years and it was glorious. Austin’s 21.5 aDOT took the top off the defense, and despite this massive target depth he still posted a 67% success rate. Kevin Austin SZN has finally arrived, and as long as he’s healthy he’ll be heavily involved. It was also a great day for Braden Lenzy, who had a critical second and long catch on the first Irish drive that showed how good he can be. While Austin and Lenzy feasted, Avery Davis did not draw a target despite having the most snaps of any Irish receiver. It is unclear if he was neglected in the game plan or wasn’t getting open downfield. It’s one week so we’re not worried about it yet, but Davis was so efficient and trustworthy last year it would be great to see him more incorporated in next week’s game plan.
A quick note on Play Action. So, about the new and improved offense Tommy Rees was talking about? The passing rate on early downs was up over 50% where last year it was below 40%, so that’s a big step in the right direction. But Rees continues to neglect the Play Action passing game and the free gains in efficiency it provides. Coan had an 83.8 PFF Grade on Play Action plays and feasted on the Seminoles defense. If you’re going to be a run-heavy team, Play Action needs to be a staple of the offense.
Both the analytics and traditional stats show that the Notre Dame run game was non-existent. Rushing worked decently with a blocker advantage of zero (as many blockers as box defenders on a given play), but when Florida State had the numbers advantage in the box the offensive line sputtered massively. Blocker disadvantages are more common because the quarterback subtracts one player on the offensive side, so if the Irish can’t run into seven person boxes with six blockers they can’t expect the same level of success as last year or else they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot .
This problem only became worse once Blake Fisher left the game injured and Notre Dame was trying to put the game away in the second half. The run game posted an awful -0.35 EPA/run in the second half at the same time Coan was thriving. While it was encouraging to see a First Down Pass Rate over 50%, they need to start passing to establish in order to lighten up the boxes for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree to work.
Florida State was the exact opposite of Notre Dame offensively. Jordan Travis never settled in as a passer, throwing three interceptions that dragged him down to -0.17 EPA/Dropback. (Note: Our dropback statistics include scrambles, as we’re trying to drive at which play calls are working more than anything). Just as a pure thrower, Travis was an abysmal -0.26 EPA/throw. McKenzie Milton was much better as a passer and justified our fear of the outcome if he started, but he came in extremely late in the game and only dropped back seven times.
While the Irish can certainly improve their tackling and general run fits, we want to focus on the scheme in this game. The Irish used a ton of five and six man boxes, playing 3-3-5 (3 linemen, 3 linebackers, 5 in the secondary) and going into an almost prevent like defense in the second half. The Florida State run game feasted against these fronts, averaging 0.72 EPA/run and 10.5 yards per run against six man fronts. Check out this 3-3-5 in the fourth quarter. Seems like it would be pretty easy to block the first level and get an easy first down, which is exactly what the Seminoles did.
Notre Dame needs to be ready to adjust and play heavier fronts when they’re being torched with the run game, even if it means putting two more players in the box than Florida State can block. It seems clear they were fine allowing Florida State to score, hoping the Seminoles would simply run out of time. But when your offense also turtles and isn’t trying to score, you can end up playing a dangerous balancing act with the clock where it almost comes back to bite you. And the Irish finished with a Post Game Win Probability of 45% (meaning based on the underlying statistics of both teams, Notre Dame would be expected to win 45% of the time). This suggests the outcome wasn’t just the result of bad luck with the penalties and questionable officiating working against them, but instead putting themselves in a position to allow that to have an impact at all on the game. There were steps in the right direction with the passing offense on Sunday, but the lack of killer instinct continues to be a reason Notre Dame may not be ready to join the elites of college football.