Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2017 Issue

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

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Page 36 of 63 MAY 2017 37 T here were a number of key changes on the Notre Dame coach- ing staff this offseason, and one in particular has fans curious about what may be in store for the team this fall. New offensive coordinator Chip Long oversaw a dynamic and high-octane offense at Memphis last year, and prac- tice reports this spring indicate that the Irish may frequently deploy offensive weapons in new ways this fall. But aside from play calling and personnel wrinkles, efficiency and tempo are ex- pected to be dialed up as well. Memphis ran 74.2 plays per game in 2016 under Long's leadership — 5.4 more plays per game than the Irish of- fense ran last year, and 5.3 more plays per game than the Irish have aver- aged in the Brian Kelly era (2010 to present). In terms of plays per game, Notre Dame's most up-tempo offense in the last seven seasons averaged 72.8 plays per game in 2014 en route to an 8-5 record. Notre Dame's lowest average in the same span came the following year — 66.5 plays per game in 2015 en route to a 10-3 record. Play count in and of itself isn't nec- essarily indicative of a team's desire to push the tempo, because other fac- tors can contribute to the total. One factor is whether the team plays from ahead or from behind more often. And the opponent's offense can play a significant role as well — Notre Dame ran only 19 offensive plays in the second half in a loss to Navy last year, for instance, because the Mid- shipmen were so effective at control- ling the ball themselves and keeping the Irish offense off the field. Play count isn't indicative of a team's effectiveness, either. There is a mix of efficient and inefficient offenses that run a high number of plays, and there's a mix of efficiency and produc- tion on the other end of the spectrum as well. The mandate for any offense, up-tempo or otherwise, is to consis- tently move the chains and turn scor- ing opportunities into touchdowns. One area where play count may provide some insight into the effec- tiveness of an offense is in the num- ber of plays per drive, rather than the number of plays per game. There are certainly no hard and fast rules about the best way to score a touchdown. If an offense drives 80 yards for a score in two plays or in nine plays, it's still worth the same on the scoreboard. But is there a sweet spot? Eliminating all end-of-half clock kills and garbage time possessions, college football offenses averaged 2.2 points per possession in 2016. The most common number of plays in a drive is three — 28 percent of all offensive non-garbage drives contested between FBS opponents last year were over in only three plays, and the vast majority of those drives resulted in a punt. As a result, drives of three plays averaged only 0.6 points per drive last season. Drives of a few more plays than that fared better, but were still below average. Four-play drives averaged only 1.8 points per drive, five-play drives averaged only 2.0 points per drive, and six-play drives averaged only 2.1 points per drive. Those play frequencies — drives of three to six plays — accounted for 59 percent of all non-garbage pos- sessions in FBS games last year. And combined, those drives averaged a paltry 1.3 points scored per posses- sion. This means that the majority of scoring is produced by teams that ei- ther score very quickly in one or two plays, or by teams that can extend a drive to at least seven plays. One- or two-play drives are boom or bust situations — typically, either team hits a big play for a touchdown or turns the ball over before getting a single first down. The data supports this. One- and two-play drives aver- age 3.4 points scored per possession. Longer drives are a mixed bag as well, but are generally more reliable. A team could drive down field and sputter in the red zone, but drives that last at least seven plays are still slightly more successful than quick- hitting drives. Seven plays usually indicates that at least two first downs were picked up by the offense and the chains therefore moved at least 20 yards downfield. Some defenses can wear down as an offense moves methodically down- field, and offenses generally have scoring range options for both field goals and touchdowns when they run more than a half-dozen plays in a sin- gle drive. On average across all FBS teams, drives of at least seven plays scored 3.5 points per drive in 2016. The good news for Irish fans is that Long's Memphis teams were very strong at both ends of the plays- per-drive spectrum. The Tigers had 12 non-garbage drives of only one or two plays last season and scored 64 points on those possessions — a whopping 5.3 points per drive — well above average and way better than Notre Dame last season in such situations (1.9 points per drive of one or two plays). For drives of seven plays or more, Memphis averaged 4.2 points per drive; again, well above the national average and ahead of Notre Dame's pace of 3.9 points per drive in such situations a year ago. If the Irish are successful offen- sively this year, it will likely mean they'll have found success creating both quick-hit scoring opportunities and methodically working the ball downfield, regardless of how early in the play clock the ball is snapped. Long doesn't have a lengthy résumé of producing efficient offenses, but his Memphis team found great scor- ing balance at every pace. ✦ 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 (Chip) Long And Short Of Plays Per Drive At Memphis last year, Chip Long's offense aver- aged 5.3 points per drive on possessions that lasted two snaps or less and 4.2 points on drives of seven plays or more. PHOTO COURTESY MEMPHIS

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