Analysis: Charting Notre Dame's struggles with Ball State's pass rush
A close examination of Notre Dame's 24-16 victory over Ball State wasn't required to realize how much pressure the Cardinals put on Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
But a close examination can document how and when those pressures came and how Wimbush handled them.
I went back and watched Saturday's game looking to identify Notre Dame's biggest issues in pass protection while trying to match that with Wimbush’s production.
The exercise is completely subjective with no textbook definition for a pressure. If a pass rusher is close enough to hit Wimbush during or slightly after his intended release of the football, I typically count that as a pressure.
With those pressures, I try to assign responsibility. Of course, I’m doing so with no certain knowledge of the protection plan. Some losses are clear man-on-man matchups. Other times, a blitz or stunt causes confusion between a pair of offensive linemen, and someone adjusts to it late.
What I can clearly identify is how many pass rushers Ball State brought on each dropback and how many Notre Dame linemen, tight ends and/or running backs were used to try to protect Wimbush.
These are the numbers I collected from Saturday’s game:
• Wimbush dropped back for a pass 38 times. Those dropbacks turned into 31 passes, four sacks and three runs. Wimbush finished the game 17-of-31 (54.8 percent) for a career-high 297 yards with a career-high three interceptions.
• Wimbush was pressured on 20 of those dropbacks. Seven times, a pressure came from an unblocked pass rusher. The other pressures came as a result of losses in pass protection by Robert Hainsey (6 losses), Tommy Kraemer (4), running back Jafar Armstrong (3), left tackle Liam Eichenberg (2) and left guard Alex Bars (2). I also assigned blame to Wimbush for creating two pressures on his own.
Keep in mind, those losses assigned to pressures won’t add up to the total number of pressured dropbacks, because more than one pass rusher can create pressure on one play.
• Ball State used a variety of looks on defense to create confusion in pass protection. They brought different combinations of three, four and five pass rushers throughout the game.
• The Cardinals used a three-man rush seven times. Wimbush’s line: 2-of-7 for 46 yards and two interceptions with three bad throws, including one of the picks. Wimbush was pressured twice with one pressure coming from an unblocked defender.
• The Cardinals used a four-man rush 15 times. Wimbush’s line: 7-of-10 for 120 yards with three bad throws. He also rushed twice (a two-yard loss and a one-yard loss), was sacked three times and was pressured seven times. An unblocked defender caused pressure three times from a four-man rush.
• The Cardinals used a five-man rush 16 times. Wimbush’s line: 8-of-14 for 131 yards and one interception, with his one bad throw being the pick. He also rushed once for a two-yard gain, was sacked once and was pressured 11 times. An unblocked defender created that pressure three times from a five-man rush.
• Ball State never brought more pass rushers than Notre Dame had players committed to pass protection. In all but four instances, Notre Dame had more offensive linemen, running backs or tight ends contributing to the pass protection than Ball State had defenders rushing.
In the four instances that Ball State brought a five-man rush against Notre Dame’s five-man pass protection, the Irish blocked it well twice and left a man unblocked the other two times. Ball State created three pressures on those four opportunities, with Wimbush putting himself under pressure once.
• In the face of the 20 pressures, Wimbush finished 8-of-14 for 107 passing yards with two interceptions, he was sacked four times and ran twice (a two-yard gain and a two-yard loss).
Clearly, Wimbush struggled when Ball State dropped eight in coverage. So as much as the pass rush has impacted Notre Dame’s offense, the Cardinals were able to be disruptive when only rushing three defenders. The Irish allowing Wimbush to be pressured twice on his seven dropbacks against a three-man rush is inexcusable.
Wimbush deserves credit for his play against a five-man rush. He was pressured on 11 of the 16 dropbacks against a five-man rush, yet he was only sacked once and made one bad throw. He completed 57.1 percent of those passes for 131 yards.
Notre Dame needs to cut down on the number of unblocked defenders creating pressure on Wimbush. The offensive line has to communicate better with the tight ends and running backs to make sure every pass rusher is accounted for on each play. Seven unblocked pressures are too many — especially when it's not a result of being outnumbered in pass protection.
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