Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 27, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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16 NOV. 27, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL A sked to explain the reasons Notre Dame opponents con- verted just 24.73 percent of their third downs during a 7-0 start, junior linebacker Shayne Simon had no hesitation in offering a theory — one that is backed up by loads of math. "Our third-down defense comes from our ability to get stops on first and second down," Simon said. "We look to get negative plays on first and second down." Basic probabilities at work. The more yards needed, the less likely an offense is to convert. Repeated breakdowns in those third-and-long spots are the only way to defy the percentages, and Notre Dame hasn't had issues there under coordinator Clark Lea or with its re- cent personnel. Lea and staff pore over the details of third-down personnel, calls and matchups for each game to ensure the opponents' conversion rate stays in line with the probabilities. "If I could tell you how much time we spend on third down, you'd be amazed," head coach Brian Kelly said. "First and s e c o n d d o w n , those meetings go pretty fast. Third down goes for a couple days. There's a lot of in- tense study, situ- ational substitu- tion, looking at matchups, looking at how you can put yourself and leverage yourself into the best situation." But to decide what works on third down, there needs to be enough fa- vorable third-down situations. All the planning, film study and sche- matic creativity won't stop an aver- age offense from converting about two-thirds of its short-yardage situ- ations. There, the offense always has the creativity and unpredictability — which makes the Notre Dame de- fense's national-best 35.4 conversion rate on third- and fourth-down run plays that much more impressive. Backed into a corner, though, and that advantage disappears. "When you can get a team on third-and-long, it changes their whole game plan," fifth-year senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji said. Vital to understanding Notre Dame's third-down success is real- izing how often it finds itself dictat- ing the offense's options. As Simon hinted, the Irish allow opponents to convert only 24.73 percent of their third downs — fifth nationally — be- cause of their work on earlier downs. Notre Dame opponents' average third-down distance is 8.4 yards, com- pared to 6.2 yards for the Irish offense. In the Clemson game, the Tigers had an average third-down length of 7.1, while Notre Dame's was 6.8. Naturally, Clemson was 4 of 15 (26.7 percent) on third down. The Notre Dame offense's 54.9 percent third-down conversion rate this year (excluding a kneel down) is a whopping 30 percentage points better than its opponents. As for getting there, Notre Dame's defense ranks eighth nationally in first-down yards per carry (3.24), 12th in first-down opponent quarter- back rating (74.3), 28th in first-down yards per pass (6.8) and 10th in first- down quarterback pressures (36). The Irish lead the country with a 32.3 run-stuff rate, per Football Outsiders. "On first and second downs, it's all about doing your jobs," Ogundeji said. "You don't know what exactly the offense is going to give you. … You just have to do your jobs. "When all 11 guys are in their gaps, especially against the run against good teams, that's what it's about." Notre Dame is also one of 12 Foot- ball Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams whose defense allows a standard- downs success rate less than 40 per- cent and passing-downs success rate less than 30 percent. One of those 12 is Wisconsin, which had played one game as of Nov. 7. (Standard downs are first downs, second-and-seven or fewer and third- and fourth-and-four or fewer — situations where the offense can reasonably run or pass and therein has the advantage of uncertainty.) In other words, Notre Dame's de- fense is among the nation's best in forcing inefficient offensive gains early to set up situations that math- ematically should yield them benefi- cial third-down situations. "There's no better feeling than hav- ing a good first two downs, com- ing off and the third-down team fin- ishes it," said senior linebacker Drew White, who usually cedes his spot to junior Bo Bauer on third down. The best illustration is a 45-3 win over Pittsburgh Oct. 24. The Panthers had an average distance of 8.5 yards on their 13 third-down plays. Notre Dame boxed them into that corner by allow- ing eight yards on 19 first-down plays through three quarters, an unfathom- ably putrid 0.42 yards per play. In turn, Pitt converted just three third downs. Against Clemson, Notre Dame fol- lowed up many of the Tigers' big plays with stuffs or tackles for loss on star running back Travis Etienne, w h i c h c re a t e d second-and-long spots and made sustaining drives a near-impossible task. Clemson's first drive of the sec- ond quarter con- tained comple- tions of 27, 35 and 16 yards to wide receiver Amari R o d g e r s . E a c h was immediately followed by a tackle for loss. That's how to make a drive with three explo- sive plays end in a field goal. "Our defense is all about energy," Simon said. "Whenever we get a neg- ative yardage snap, we all get juiced up and hyped up. That really plays into our energy level." In the third quarter, linebacker Jer- emiah Owusu-Koramoah and defen- sive end Isaiah Foskey tackled Etienne for a one-yard gain after an 11-yard catch and first down. Three plays later, Clemson kicked a field goal. Owusu- Koramoah's 23-yard fumble return also occurred on a first-down play. The aforementioned 16-yard recep- tion by Rodgers was the only time Clemson converted a third-and-10 or longer. Not since the season opener against Duke has an opponent con- verted more than one third down FIRST RATE ON THIRD DOWN To understand Notre Dame's third-down dominance on defense, look at its first-down success

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