Stat Study: Analyzing Notre Dame strengths, weaknesses

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Numbers never lie, but they aren’t great storytellers, either.

The statistics, by themselves, lack context, like clues at a crime scene that beg to be pieced together.

That’s where we come in.

In a 10-2 season rife with shifting lineups and surprise heroes, Notre Dame displayed both consistent strengths and damning flaws — sometimes both at once. As the Irish trudge towards a New Year’s bowl berth, let’s examine a few of the numbers and what they mean.

Offense

To put it bluntly, Notre Dame’s offense is good at moving the football.

To put it statistically, the Irish rank fifth nationally in yards per play (7.13), fifth in yards per carry (5.76) and 15th in yards per pass attempt (8.79).

The beauty, in this case, is in the balance.

Notre Dame majored in explosive plays in 2015, whether that be on the ground or through the air. The Irish notched a school record 14 touchdowns of at least 50 yards, thanks in part to a physically imposing offensive line and Will Fuller’s fleet-footed theatrics. Nine of Fuller’s 13 touchdowns, in fact, measured 30 yards or longer.

Of course, there were hiccups along the way. Notre Dame fumbled 19 times, 10 of which came in the monsoon at Clemson and the sluggish Shamrock Series at Fenway Park. The red zone was as friendly to the Irish as its fans were to marshmallows on Senior Night.

But more on that later.

Rushing

The names changed, but not the production.

As a team, Notre Dame averaged 5.76 yards per rush, which ranks fifth nationally. That average is due in part to the Irish’s big-play ability, as their seven rushes of 50 yards or more was third in the country.

Senior C.J. Prosise, who morphed into a running back after previously playing wide receiver and defensive back, rushed for 1,032 yards, 6.6 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns, while adding 308 receiving yards and another score.

Josh Adams, a true freshman, started just two games but compiled 757 rushing yards, 7.3 yards per carry and five touchdowns nonetheless. His four 100-yard rushing games is a freshman record at Notre Dame.

And speaking of records, sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer rushed for nine touchdowns in 2015, tying Rick Mirer and Tony Rice in the Irish record books.

So, to put things in perspective: the running backs ran it successfully, the quarterbacks ran it successfully, the seniors ran it successfully and the freshmen ran it successfully.

The one constant, of course, was a productive offensive line.

Red zone

Now would be the time to avert your eyes.

Notre Dame scored on 80 percent of its red-zone trips this season, good (or, bad) for 89th nationally. Moreover, the Irish found the end zone just 56 percent of the time, which ranks 91st.

Those struggles were most glaring in treacherous wins over Temple and Boston College as well as the season-ending loss at Stanford. In the aforementioned two wins, Notre Dame scored on just 7 of 12 red-zone trips (58.3 percent), notched just four red-zone touchdowns (33.3 percent) and committed a critical five red-zone turnovers. While they earned victories, the Irish sacrificed available style points in the process.

As for the 38-36 loss at Stanford, Notre Dame scored on all seven of its red-zone trips, but settled for three field goals that ultimately sealed its fate.

Pass defense

Don’t let some sneaky statistics fool you.

Sure, Notre Dame finished 28th nationally in passing defense this season, allowing just 195.7 yards per game.

But the Irish secondary wasn’t as sure as the numbers suggest.

Turns out, Notre Dame faced four of the 10 worst passing offenses in college football — Texas (118th nationally, 145.5 passing yards per game), Georgia Tech (124th, 121.8), Boston College (125th, 110.9) and Navy (126th, 90.4).

When matched against competent quarterbacks and offenses, Notre Dame’s secondary was often exposed. That was the case in Virginia on Sept. 12, when Matt Johns passed for 289 yards and two touchdowns, completing 68.4 percent of his passes, in a near upset. It was the case at home against USC, when Cody Kessler amassed 365 passing yards, including touchdowns of 75 and 83 yards. And it was certainly the case at Stanford, when familiar foe Kevin Hogan completed 17 of 21 passes (80.95 percent) for 269 yards and four touchdowns.

The Irish finished 61st in pass efficiency defense, a far more accurate metric.

Turnovers

In 2015, Notre Dame’s game-changing plays typically came on offense.

At the end of the regular season, the Irish ranked 97th nationally in turnover ratio, at -0.42. They recovered an underwhelming five fumbles (109th) and nabbed eight interceptions (94th).

Notre Dame’s offense also factored into the turnover ratio, most notably fumbling 19 times (76th) and losing nine of them (70th).

But all things considered, a Brian VanGorder defense designed to wreak havoc rarely fulfilled that promise.

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) runs the ball next to Stanford’s Kevin Anderson (48) during the second half of Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN