Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct.10, 2016

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

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20 OCT. 10, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED N otre Dame's disappointing start to the season dealt a swift and lethal blow to the team's College Football Playoff aspirations and also de‑ livered an unexpectedly swift coaching staff change. Through the first four games of the year, Notre Dame had surrendered 134 points and five plays of 60 or more yards — as many huge play breakdowns as they had in all of 2015 and as many as they had surrendered in total over the course of the 2012‑14 seasons. My drive‑based analytics break down possession efficiency into the offense, defense and special teams components that contrib‑ ute scoring value — positively or negatively — in a given game. In single‑score losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke, the defense was most responsible for the scoring margin differential. The Longhorns topped the Irish by only three points in an over‑ time thriller, while Texas scored 18.4 more points than an average of‑ fense would have been expected to score based on starting field position. In an eight‑point loss to Michigan State, the Irish defense allowed 11.7 more points than expected. In a three‑ point loss to Duke, Notre Dame al‑ lowed 9.9 more points than expected on defense alone (plus another 6.6‑point deficit on special teams). Merely average defensive play in all three games would have resulted in victory according to this possession efficiency analysis. A total scoring def‑ icit of 14 points in those three games would have been a total positive scor‑ ing margin of 26 points with middle‑ of‑the‑road defensive play — and the Irish would have been celebrating a solid, if not spectacular, 4‑0 record. I pulled defensive points per drive data from each of the last six seasons (2010‑15) and compared the data from the first four weeks of the season with the full season results for every team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. On average, the difference between those early season versus full season results per team was 0.5 points per drive in one direction or the other. The 2010 Irish defense is one exam‑ ple of a team that improved defen‑ sively by about 0.5 points per drive from its first four games (1.98 points per drive allowed) to its full season results (1.46 points per drive). Like this year, Notre Dame started Brian Kelly's first season with a dis‑ appointing 1‑3 record. The defense was much better all year in 2010 than the 2016 unit has been early on, but it really stepped up down the stretch. Notre Dame allowed 20 or fewer points in seven of its final nine games of the year, all victories, and capped the season with a 33‑17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl. That was the only Irish defense un‑ der Kelly that markedly improved from its first four games to the re‑ mainder of the year. The 2011 and 2013 teams had nearly identical points per drive results in the first four games and for the full season. The 2012 defense allowed 0.3 more points per drive by season's end than it did in the first month. The 2015 de‑ fense regressed by 0.5 points per drive. And the 2014 defense fell off dramati‑ cally — the Irish allowed only 0.77 points per drive in the first four weeks in 2014 (Brian VanGorder's first year as defensive coordina‑ tor), but finished the year with a mark of 2.15 points per drive (al‑ lowing opponent scores of 43, 31, 39, 55, 40, 31 and 49 points in the final seven games of the regular season). That early season to full season drop‑off ranks as one of the 10 worst in a single college football season since 2010. VanGorder was relieved of his duties because the Irish have been even worse to start the 2016 season. Notre Dame's defense allowed 2.5 points per drive over the first four weeks, an average that would result in a national defensive efficiency ranking of 80th or worse if it was kept up throughout the rest of the year. An improvement of 0.5 points per drive by season's end like in 2010 would certainly help, but it would still result in an end‑of year rating of 2.0 points per drive — the second‑ worst of the Kelly era in South Bend behind that 2014 struggle. Is it possible that an even more dra‑ matic defensive turnaround than 2010 could occur? Yes, but don't count on it. In the last six seasons, only six teams in Power Five conferences al‑ lowed at least 2.5 points per game over the first month of the season and finished the year allowing fewer than 2.0 points per game — 2011 North Carolina State, 2012 Vanderbilt, 2012 Washington, 2013 South Carolina, 2014 West Virginia, and 2015 TCU. If the Irish do turn around the sea‑ son, it is more likely to combine a modest improvement defensively with a more efficient and potentially explosive offense to win high‑scoring games. It won't be the kind of defensive performances that inspire sustained success long term, but it might be enough to recover from the brutal start and finish strong. ✦ IRISH ANALYTICS BRIAN FREMEAU Brian Fremeau of ESPN/Football Outsiders has been a statistical analyst at Blue & Gold Illustrated since January 2015. He can be reached at Defensive Improvement Is Key To Finishing Strong Brian Kelly is hoping his 2016 defense can achieve the same improvement his 2010 unit did, when it allowed 1.98 points per drive through four games but finished the season at 1.46. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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