Friday Five: Behind The Numbers Of Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football's Third-Down Offense And Tommy Rees' First Year
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Friday Five: Behind The Numbers Of Notre Dame's Third-Down Offense

No matter how much you wanted otherwise, Notre Dame was going to be a ball-control offense in 2020 because of its personnel.

Yes, this offseason and future ones are about becoming more explosive. But that’s a separate discussion than what Notre Dame did with the personnel it had in 2020. On the latter, it’s hard not to see Tommy Rees’ first season as offensive coordinator as a success when looking at the whole thing.

Notre Dame needed to be efficient for its ball-control M.O. to work. The identity and relative lack of explosiveness meant third downs were going to be more frequent (Alabama averaged 2.5 fewer third downs per game than the Irish), so effectiveness there was critical. Notre Dame delivered on that, with a 49.7 conversion rate that ranked seventh nationally. It was a 9.7 percentage point bump and 58-spot jump from last season.

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Tommy Rees oversaw one of the nation's best third-down offenses in 2020.
Tommy Rees oversaw one of the nation's best third-down offenses in 2020. (Photo by Joe Raymond)

These might be some of your guesses as to why:

• An increase in third-and-shorts. Nope! Notre Dame actually faced fewer third or fourth-and-shorts per game in 2020 (4.83) than it did in 2019 (5.3). A smaller percentage of third and fourth-down attempts were on short-yardage last season (31.7) than 2019.(32.7).

• An increase in yards per play on first down. Not that either. Notre Dame averaged nearly 1 fewer yard on first down in 2020 than 2019 (6.27 to 7.22).

• Fewer third/fourth-and-longs. Try again. Notre Dame attempted a third- or fourth-and-8 or longer 5.33 times per game in 2020, slightly up from 5.15 in 2019.

The main reasons is pretty simple. Third-and-short effectiveness and more third-and-long success.

Notre Dame ran the ball 48 times in short-yardage spots (third/fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to gain) in 2020 and picked up the first down 36 times, or 75 percent. That’s up from 30 conversions in 51 tries in 2019 (58.8 percent). On passes, the Irish converted 60 percent of the time (6-for-10) in 2020 compared to 38.9 (7-for-19) in 2019.

The increase in percentage of run calls is notable. That’s a coordinator trusting his best units to deliver.

On third or fourth downs with at least 8 yards to go, Notre Dame converted 31.7 percent of the time in 2020 and 26.9 percent in 2019. The biggest difference was 10.3 yards per pass on those plays in 2020, up from 7.3 the year before.

Quarterback Ian Book gets plenty of the credit for improvement in obvious passing situations. Rees, though, deserves some props as the play-caller and quarterbacks coach for helping unlock it and find explosiveness when it was needed.

2. How Might Marcus Freeman's Defense Change From Cincinnati?

This line from Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina a few months ago was a great description of how Marcus Freeman’s Cincinnati defense allowed so little success through the air: “They live at the intersection of coverage and pass rush.”

The Bearcats had a deep group of cornerbacks led by Ahmad Gardner (42.5 opponent catch percentage, three interceptions, six pass breakups) and a pass-rush star in Myjai Sanders (7.0 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups). Per Galina, Cincinnati played a one-high safety look on 68 percent of snaps when he wrote the story in Mid-November. That’s a lot of trust in the corners to hang in man coverage and the pass-rush to create problems.

Freeman’s first Notre Dame defense, though, has questions in both areas. Cornerback might be its biggest unknown and weakest position. The spot opposite Clarence Lewis is certainly the defense’s biggest mystery. If you’re looking for ways Freeman’s scheme will be different than it was in Cincinnati, less man-to-man and single-high looks is a good bet.

Furthermore, Notre Dame’s defensive line once again has to replace two future NFL draft picks on the edge. Position coach Mike Elston’s developmental track record earns him the benefit of the doubt, and rising junior Isaiah Foskey provided splashy moments. But Foskey will need another level of consistency. He had 10 pressures in the Irish’s first three games and eight the rest of the way, including one sack over the final six games.

3. Avery Davis' Value

Avery Davis was Notre Dame's best yards-after-catch threat in 2020.
Avery Davis was Notre Dame's best yards-after-catch threat in 2020. (Bill Panzica)

Notre Dame’s ability to reshape its receiver room and find more explosiveness on the perimeter will be one of the biggest factors in determining its 2021 ceiling.

The talking points are replacements for Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek, jonesing for rising sophomore Jordan Johnson and the health of rising seniors Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy. It makes sense. Austin and Lenzy are explosive. Johnson carries the fascination of a former five-star recruit.

But I’d caution against forgetting about Avery Davis because of his unique skill set: yards after catch (YAC). Davis’ 8.0 YAC per reception led all Irish receivers with more than one catch and ranked 19th nationally among receivers with at least 30 targets. Some notable names below him: Kadarius Toney (6.8), Purdue’s Rondale Moore (6.8) and LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. (6.4). All three are seen as early-round draft prospects this year.

Yes, Davis’ route tree contained friendlier situations for running after the catch than an outside receiver’s would. He caught 75 percent of his receptions within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Before dismissing him, though, consider that Toney had 66 percent of his catches come within 10 yards and all but two of Moore’s 35 catches were within 10 yards. Like Davis, both played at least 83 percent of their snaps in the backfield or in the slot.

Davis isn’t going to set the course for Notre Dame’s receiving corps, but he has a skill that’s found in all explosive offenses and many of the best receivers these days.

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4. Jack Coan Expectations

I took a look earlier this week at some history of grad transfer quarterbacks to see if it could help set expectations for Jack Coan if he starts. I found 19 quarterbacks from 2015-20 who started for at least a year at a Power Five school and transferred to another Power Five. Coan, of course, made 18 starts at Wisconsin.

Every situation is different, from the quarterback himself to his competition to his supporting cast. But of the 19, Jake Rudock’s 2015 season at Michigan after transferring from Iowa seems like a reasonable baseline. Rudock won the job over a group that had little experience, held it down and threw for 3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and completed 64 percent of his passes.

Rudock wasn’t asked to carry Michigan’s offense, but still turned himself into a sixth-round pick and pushed the ball when needed. He completed 54.5 percent of his throws at least 10 yards downfield.

Coan was a 57 percent passer when throwing 10-plus yards downfield in 2019. Like Rudock, he’s not an addition geared toward winning in the College Football Playoff and came from a ball-control, run-heavy offense at his first school. He should, though, keep Notre Dame competing to get to the playoff.

5. NCAA Tournament Chances

Mike Brey isn’t dismissing the question, so I’ll address it. If Notre Dame keeps winning, what are its NCAA tournament chances?

“We can squint, it’s out there, it’s doable,” Brey said Wednesday on WSBT radio. “You need some things to happen, but we at least put ourselves back where you can look at it and say, ‘We have some control of this thing.’”

I’m more skeptical. Right now, the Irish are 65th in the NET, 1-7 in Quadrant 1 games and 2-3 in Quadrant 2. Not a great at-large case.

Let’s lean toward the best-case scenario for a minute. Notre Dame plays its five remaining games (no sure thing) and goes 4-1, with the loss to either Louisville on Tuesday or Florida State on March 6, and wins two games in the ACC tournament. That’s a 15-12 overall record, likely with one or two wins over NCAA tournament teams. We’ll call one of the two ACC tournament wins a Quad 2, one a Quad 1 and the tournament loss a Quad 1.

That would bump the Quad 1 record to 4-9, going off current NET rankings, and the Quad 2 mark to 3-3. Even if Duke stays a Quad 1 win and not a Quad 3 home loss, and one of Kentucky or Pitt jumps back into Quad 1 victory territory, the Irish would be 7-12 in the first two quadrants, or a 36.8 win percentage.

There has only been one tournament since the NCAA switched to the NET from RPI, but a sole team was given an at-large bid in 2019 with a combined Quad 1+2 win percentage that low: 2019 Ole Miss, which was also 7-12 and earned a No. 8 seed. The Rebels did not have any losses outside the first two quadrants, were 36th in the NET on Selection Sunday and had four wins over tournament teams.

Also noteworthy is 2019 Clemson, which had a 1-10 Quad 1 record and was 7-13 in Quads 1+2. It was not selected to the field.

Just one of the teams projected in the 2020 field, per BracketMatrix, had a Quad 1 or Quad 1+2 win percentage as low as or below 36.8. That was Texas Tech, which was 7-13 in the first two quadrants. The Red Raiders, a projected No. 10 seed, were also 22nd in the NET and had three wins over projected tournament teams.

Furthermore, only three teams that ended outside the NET top 50 made the tournament field in 2019 and just three were projected to in 2020. Each of them had at least three wins over teams in the field and eight Quad 1+2 wins.

The bottom line is Notre Dame will have played a lot of good teams. It won’t have beaten very many. The latter is usually hard to overcome.

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