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Notre Dame 2015 Data Summary: Offense

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Freshman Josh Adams helped the Irish average 200 rushing yards for the first time since 1998.
BGI/Bill Panzica

Here is the overview of some of the vital 2015 statistics on offense:

Rushing Offense: 28th — 207.6 Yards Per Game

A 200-yard rushing mark — or right in its neighborhood — has always been one of our main barometers to indicate a successful football season at Notre Dame. This year’s total marked the first time the Fighting Irish actually finished above the 200-yard mark since 1998, when senior Autry Denson, the current running backs coach, led the way to a 208.1-yard average during the 9-3 season.

Now, the Notre Dame record book will show that the 9-3 team in 2000, which also lost in the Fiesta Bowl, had a 213.5-yard average. However, back then bowl games weren’t included. In the 41-9 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State, the Irish finished with 17 rushing yards, thereby a final total of 197.2. Likewise, in 2012 the Irish were at 202 yards during the 12-0 regular season, but with only 32 rushing yards in the 42-14 BCS National Championship Game defeat to Alabama the final figure was 189.4.

Among the teams that finished at the top of the polls, that 200-yard barrier was reached: Ohio State was 11th nationally in rushing (245.2), Stanford 19th (223.7), Clemson 21st (223.0), Oklahoma 22nd (222.1) and national champion Alabama 32nd (199.9).

Stay in that 200-yard neighborhood — instead of what has been typically 125-160 since the turn of the century for the Irish— and it should remain a top-10/Big Six Bowl player.

Passing Offense: 35th — 258.8 Yards Per Game

More relevant is Notre Dame finished 23rd nationally in passing efficiency, easily the best in head coach Brian Kelly’s six seasons.

The yards per attempt (8.74) ranks among the top five in school history, while the yards per completion (13.96) was 24th nationally. The top four in the latter were all triple-option teams, which lull you to sleep with the run before hitting the home run off play action: Believe it or not, 2-10 Army was No. 1 with 23.0 yards per completion, followed by Air Force (21.2), Navy (20.0) and Georgia Tech (18.1).

Total Offense: 27th — 466.4 Yards Per Game

This was only the third season in Notre Dame annals where the Irish averaged more than 200 yards rushing (207.6) and 200 yards passing (258.8).

The first was the 1970 team led by quarterback Joe Theismann that finished No. 2 nationally and, including the bowl win over No. 1 Texas, averaged 247.6 rushing yards and 249.0 passing yards. The second was the 1977 national champs, steered by quarterback Joe Montana. Including the win over No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl (38-10), the Irish that year averaged 232.8 rushing yards and 203.8 passing yards per contest.

Scoring Offense: 34th — 34.2 Points Per Game

Since the 22-year major bowl victory famine that began in 1994, this output was the second highest by a Fighting Irish team. It is eclipsed only by the 36.7 average by the 2005 edition that also lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 34-20. The Fighting Irish school record remains 37.6 set way back in 1968 by a team that finished 7-2-1, but averaged only 20.0 in the three games it failed to win.

Overall, this year’s mark was relatively on par with Alabama, whose 35.1 figure was 30th, while Ohio State was 28th at 35.7. Among other top programs, Stanford was 18th (37.8), Clemson 16th (38.5) and Oklahoma fourth (43.5) with a number that provided a boost to it making the four-team College Football Playoff.

Red-Zone Offense: 88th with a 81.1 scoring percentage

This has been consistently the worst area of production under Kelly, generally ranking lower than 70th in the country each season. This year it had 53 opportunities once it reached the opponent’s 20, or inside it, and the Irish scored 31 touchdowns and 12 field goals, and had no points 10 times.

In the 38-36 loss at Stanford, Notre Dame had to settle for field goals on three of its four red-zone possessions (the Cardinal scored touchdowns on all five of theirs). In the 24-22 defeat at Clemson, the Irish failed to score on one of their red-zone chances, while the Tigers scored all three times (two touchdowns and a field goal). Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes also took a hit late in the season when seven red-zone chances versus Boston College resulted in zero points three times and field goals two other occasions in the 19-16 win versus the Eagles.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a powerful runner such as Alabama’s Derrick Henry or Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott in the red zone? Well, maybe you might be surprised to find that the Crimson Tide was 82nd in red-zone offense (82.3) and the Buckeyes 81st (82.5).

Meanwhile, teams with six or seven losses such as Kansas State finished second, Penn State was sixth, Nebraska was 11th and Auburn was 13th. Even 4-8 Syracuse was eighth. That’s in part because the Orange reached the red zone only 39 times. Conversely, Notre Dame scored more than a dozen touchdowns on plays of 50 or more yards, and many others from 35 or more yards away.

There is no denying this is an area Notre Dame needs to improve, but as Alabama and Ohio State show, there is more that goes into this than just raw data. The main issue for the Irish is they lead the nation in most turnovers in the red zone over the past two years with 14, which brings us to …

Turnovers: Tied for 61st — 20 (10 Fumbles, 10 Interceptions)

The total is not too bad, considering national runner-up Clemson had 26 to tie for 116th in the country. Alabama was tied for 31st with 17, while Ohio State and Oklahoma each had 18. We use 15 or less as a number to shoot for each year — but it’s not so much about how many but where and when. The fact that the Irish have 14 red-zone turnovers the past two years to lead the nation is the primary issue.

Navy tied the NCAA record for fewest turnovers in a season with only eight this year. Among Irish foes, USC had only 12 to tie for fourth nationally, while Stanford had 13 to rank eighth.

Third-Down Conversions: 39th — 42.5 Percent

Pretty solid again, going 68 of 160. Stanford was sixth at 50.0, while Clemson was 13th at 47.4, the best among the top teams that placed ahead of Notre Dame. Ohio State was only 58th (40.7) and Alabama 86th (37.4).

SUMMARY

Overall a good performance on this side of the ball, especially considering Notre Dame had lost its top two quarterbacks and top two running backs since the end of the spring, and its top tight end. There was a healthy balance to the attack, stellar big-play capability, and Kelly seemed more committed to lean on the running game, although the ability to run effectively against the better defenses still tends to manifest itself. With the recruiting success on offense the past several years, there is no reason to believe that the production of this year can’t continue or even improve. Better efficiency in the red zone, though, is what can spell the difference between 10-2 or 9-3, or a College Football Playoff berth.