Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2017

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

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Page 32 of 55 FEBRUARY 2017 33 T he 2016 season was an exception- ally frustrating one for the Fight- ing Irish, and head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have their work cut out for them this offseason to find answers for 2017. As we explored in the last Irish Analytics column, Notre Dame was better than its record this year and suffered from unusually bad luck to finish 4-8. But even if close game luck had balanced out last fall and they had won seven games instead of four, that record still falls far short of the elite standard against which Kelly will ultimately be measured. In five of Notre Dame's eight losses this year, the Irish had a lead over its opponent in the second half. In four of those games — against Texas, Duke, Stanford and Virginia Tech — Notre Dame had a fourth-quarter lead against its opponent and failed to close out a victory. Late-game leads that evaporate are most frequently blamed on the de- fense, and the Irish were certainly not strong enough on that side of the ball to thwart opponent comebacks. But the Irish offense wasn't effective this year playing with a lead, and that in- effectiveness was just as costly. Notre Dame averaged 2.47 points per offensive non-garbage drive in 2016, the 40th-best possession-scoring rate in the nation. That level of offen- sive efficiency was far from elite, but an above-average scoring rate was sufficient to build a second-half lead against most opponents this past year. That efficiency level plummeted in key second-half situations, however. In the opener against Texas, the Irish took a 35-31 lead in the fourth quarter and forced a Longhorns punt on the ensuing possession. But on Notre Dame's next drive, with a four- point lead and 8:28 left in regulation, the Irish went only 19 yards on six plays and punted back to Texas. The Longhorns scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, and the Irish lost in overtime. Against Stanford, the Irish took a 10-point lead into halftime, but threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half. The Irish offense then had three straight possessions with a single-score lead, and those drives ended with another interception, a three-and-out punt and a safety. Stan- ford took the lead for good with a touchdown on its next drive after this sequence. Against Virginia Tech, the Irish again had a 10-point halftime lead and surrendered a touchdown on the Hokies' first possession of the second half. Notre Dame's offense gained only 13 yards on seven plays on its next two drives, each while leading 24-21. After expanding their lead to 31-24, the Irish went three-and-out on their next possession. Virginia Tech scored twice more in the fourth quar- ter to win 34-31. In those three losses, the Irish of- fense took the field eight times while leading by a single score. They scored only once on those eight drives and gave up a safety on one as well. The offense that averaged 2.5 points per drive for the season netted a paltry 0.6 points per drive in those key situ- ations. On the season, the Irish offense had 11 total situations in which it took the field in the second half clinging to a single-score lead. They netted 12 points on those 11 drives, good for 1.1 points per drive, the 108th-best rate on such situations among Football Bowl Subdivision teams this year. Clinging to a narrow second-half lead is not just the responsibility of the defense. When the offense has an opportunity to extend that lead to two scores, it needs to seize it. In all FBS games this year, offenses took the field 1,427 times while lead- ing by one to eight points, and av- eraged 2.3 points per drive in those situations. The teams that went on to win the game averaged 2.6 points per drive on those offensive possessions, and the teams that went on to lose av- eraged 1.2 points per drive in those situations. Notre Dame's failure to even meet that lowly standard with an otherwise above-average offense put much more pressure on the Irish defense than necessary. This problem has actually plagued Notre Dame for several years. In the Brian Kelly era, the Irish offense averaged 2.4 points per drive from 2010-15. But in second-half situations in which the offense took the field with a single-score lead, Notre Dame scored only 1.6 points per drive on those possessions. Six of those games ended up as single-score losses for Notre Dame — 2010 Michigan State, 2010 Tulsa, 2011 Michigan, 2011 Flor- ida State, 2013 Pittsburgh and 2014 Northwestern — just like the losses to Texas, Stanford and Virginia Tech this past year. Does the offensive play calling get too conservative in these second-half close game situations? Does offensive execution falter when the pressure gets higher? The problem is likely the result of multiple factors, but the impact is clear. Notre Dame's offense can be explosive and efficient often, but it needs to be at its best in these criti- cal situations in order for the Irish to turn more toss-up games into sure victories. ✦ 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 The Notre Dame Offense Was Not Clutch In 2016 Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer and the Irish offense scored just 12 points on 11 second-half drives in which they held a single-score lead, a rate of 1.1 points per drive that ranked just 108th nationally. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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