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A look at Notre Dame’s November in one word: Turnovers

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All season, this space has kept track of four specific statistical trends, chosen because they are simple enough to understand yet more telling than Notre Dame’s yardage totals or time of possession extremes. Turnover margin keeps an eye on momentum-swinging errors. Yards per pass attempt indicates any penchant for big plays. Rush attempts per game tells of a confidence relying on the ground game. Third down conversion percentage speaks to overall offensive success.

They showed last season’s defense gave up passing yards and third down conversions at rates beyond overcoming. They emphasized the Irish running game and dependence on turnovers at the 2017 midseason mark. They underscored Notre Dame’s defensive stinginess at this season’s peak, the October wins over USC and North Carolina State.

The fall from that peak was quick. Due to a convenience of the calendar, the season’s storylines break cleanly into September and October versus the four games in November. The only messiness comes from removing some Navy exceptions — the Midshipmen’s 72 rush attempts spike that average, for example.

All laid out below, one of these four predicators stands out.

The turnover drop-off on defense and influx on offense cannot be emphasized enough. More precisely, the rise in Irish giveaways marred November more than anything else.

What made Notre Dame’s November so much different than its September and October? It stopped forcing turnovers and started offering them. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

In the season’s first two months and eight games, Notre Dame turned over the ball only seven times. That rate more than doubled to eight times in November’s four games. Those eight feckless possessions may as well have been touchdowns forfeited.

When not turning over the ball, the Irish offense reached the end zone on 35.81 percent of its possessions this year. That number ticks further upward when accounting for indifferent possessions at the end of halves, but for this exercise, let’s use 35.81 percent.

Without turnovers, such a rate would have delivered Notre Dame another touchdown this weekend at Stanford. Also without those turnovers, the Cardinal would not have scored twice in short fields. Suddenly this thought exercise produces a 27-24 score in favor of the Irish.

The same logic creates a hypothetical 18-17 result in Miami on Nov. 11, again tilting toward Notre Dame.

Aside from that glaring and crippling factor, the Irish offense was viable in November. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush averaged more yards per pass attempt, a sign of finding consistency in producing big plays. The drop in rush attempts per game ties to playing catch up at Miami, only running 31 times.

It may seem overly simplistic, but the flip in turnover margin is the statistic that jumps off the page. A truly elite defense may have counteracted that trend or perhaps an undeniably lethal offense could have scored touchdowns more often than 35.81 percent of the time.

However, for a good team showing glimpses of being very good in mid-to-late October, the simultaneous sloppiness on offense and lack of fortuitous bounces on defense were far too much to overcome.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four key statistical tidbits (Sept. 1)
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past (Oct. 11)
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that? (Oct. 12)
Friday at 4: A statistical look at how Notre Dame routed two top-15 teams in consecutive weeks (Nov. 3)

Turnover margin
First eight games: +11
Last four games: -6
12-game season: +5
Considering the Irish did not turn the ball over against Wake Forest but did force a turnover, the November data becomes even more foreboding when narrowed to the last three games and a -7 differential, including seven turnovers in the two losses alone.

Yards per pass attempt

Offense Defense (allowed)
First eight games: 5.96 yards First eight games: 6.00 yards allowed
Last four games: 7.43 yards Last four games: 8.56 yards allowed
Nov. excluding Navy: 8.93 yards allowed
12-game season: 6.51 yards 12-game season: 6.22 yards allowed
Season excluding Navy: 6.24 yards allowed

Navy attempted eight passes for 41 yards. Removing such from the defensive data allows for a bit more accurate overall picture.

Rush attempts per game

Offense Opponents
First eight games: 44.63 First eight games: 31.63
Last four games: Last four games: 47.25
Nov. excluding Navy: 38.00 Nov. excluding Navy: 39.00
12-game season: 41.75 12-game season: 36.83
Season excluding Navy: 42.82 Season excluding Navy: 33.64

The Midshipmen rushed 72 times. That skews one half of this data if not removed. Notre Dame had seven genuine offensive possessions, rushing only 30 times against Navy, skewing the other half. For context’s sake: That is even fewer rush attempts than the Irish attempted when trailing so resoundingly against Miami.

Third down conversion percentage

Offense Defense (allowed)
First eight games: 43.33 percent First eight games: 34.09 percent
Last four games: 44.07 percent Last four games: 32.14 percent
Nov. excluding Navy: 26.32 percent
12-game season: 43.58 percent 12-game season: 33.51 percent
Season excluding Navy: 32.35 percent

Navy converted 8-of-18 third downs, skewing the data both in attempts and in success rate. Removing that from November, one sees defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit may have held its own down the homestretch. Rather, it gave up big plays more often, as exhibited by the yards per pass attempt. While Notre Dame halted its November opponents more frequently on third downs, it also gave up touchdowns on 33.33 percent of possessions, up noticeably from only 16.38 percent in September and October.

Things To Learn: What did Miami teach Notre Dame?

Associated Press
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Little good can ever be drawn from a 41-8 embarrassment on national television. If Notre Dame wants to have any reason to look back on what happened at Miami two weeks ago and not lament every second of the disappointment, it will need to use that experience to its advantage this weekend at another top-25 opponent.

By no means will Stanford’s “Farm” echo the Hurricanes’ Hard Rock Stadium. That atmosphere truly defined raucous. An impartial observer had no choice but to deem it outright impressive. Nonetheless, Cardinal fans will feed off the slightest early Irish mistake, just as Miami’s crowd did.

“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do, turn the football over,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We fed that atmosphere at Miami. … You’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them that extra momentum at home.”

This may seem simple. In fact, it is simple. Yet, it remains critically important on the road. When dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, momentum can shift to steamrolling shockingly quickly. (That is, in fact, part of the allure to college football.)

The issues in south Florida went beyond turnovers. More precisely, they went beyond south Florida. Afterward, Kelly looked back on the week’s practices with some skepticism. The Irish have acknowledged their readiness was not up to the necessary standard.

“I didn’t prepare to the best of my ability Miami week, and obviously it showed,” junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said Tuesday. “Being militant in the way we go about this week and everything that we do, so having intention to the way we practice, to the way we watch film, to the way I eat, things like that, it’ll all go into the game.”

If Notre Dame learned from the mistakes of the past, that loss can at least serve a purpose, a greater future good. If not, it was simply the moment a promising season was lost.

When healthy, Stanford junior Bryce Love may be the best running back in the country. If he puts an ankle injury far enough out of his mind to face Notre Dame, he will be the toughest challenge the Irish defensive line has faced this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

How will the Irish defensive line handle itself against the best offensive line it has faced this season?

By every possible metric, Notre Dame’s defensive line has exceeded expectations this year. Admittedly, little was expected.

If it plays a part in limiting Stanford’s exceptional rushing attack — averaging 215.7 yards per game and 6.41 per carry, good for No. 26 and No. 4 in the country, respectively — then it will have proven itself to be a strength heading into 2018.

Using rushing stats as the barometer with an exception for Navy’s triple-option approach, the best offensive lines the Irish have faced this season were Georgia and Miami (FL).

The Bulldogs average 267.4 rushing yards per game (No. 10 in the country) and 5.80 yards per carry (No. 9). Against the Irish, they gained 185 yards on 43 carries, a 4.30 average.

The Hurricanes average 176.7 yards per game (No. 55) and 5.32 per rush (No. 19). Notre Dame gave up 237 rushing yards on 42 attempts, a 5.64 average. (As always when discussing national rankings, none of these rushing figures are sacks adjusted.)

The Irish defensive front does not need to stop the Cardinal backs outright, only slow them. Stanford’s passing attack is decently efficient but far from genuinely dangerous. Since slipping past Oregon State in late October, a game without both Love and sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello, the Cardinal have averaged 167 yards through the air per game, completing 57.53 percent of attempts with 6.86 yards gained per attempt. That efficiency stems from defenses fearing the run, not from an overwhelmingly consistent or threatening passing attack. Thus, Notre Dame will focus on keeping the ground game in check.

He’s not Bryce Love — hardly anyone is — but junior Cameron Scarlett has held his own when called upon this season. (Getty Images)

Stanford junior Bryce Love will, at best, be hobbled with a bum ankle. At worst, he will not even take the field, leaving Cameron Scarlett to carry the load.

“[Scarlett] seems to be a physical back, downhill runner, a good one-cut guy,” Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Tuesday. “Can make you miss, and physical. I think he embodies what Stanford tries to be about, and that’s tough, pro-style football, and that’s being efficient, keeping the ball away from their opponent, and playing tough.”

Scarlett has seen significant time this season with Love battling the ankle injury for much of the year. Scarlett has taken 73 carries for 362 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.96 yards per rush.

Nonetheless, Kelly will prepare anticipating Love’s speed.

“To me, it’s his ability to break that first tackle [that sets Love apart] and then ultimately he’s got incredible speed,” Kelly said. “… He’s got elite speed and he breaks tackles, and that is a lethal mix.”

In a perfect world, both Love and Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams would be 100 percent, with fully-supportive ankles free from all swelling. The two could try to one-up each other possession after possession without ever taking the field at the same time.

Alas, this is far from a perfect world. Speaking of which …

Is Equanimeous St. Brown healthy?

If not for the national holiday of gluttony Thursday, this may already be known. Instead, the junior receiver’s status in the concussion protocol may not be known until close to Saturday’s kickoff (8:14 p.m. ET; ABC).

If St. Brown is cleared to go, then the norm continues with an increasing emphasis on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. If St. Brown is not available, look for more of junior receiver Miles Boykin.

“Boykin will go in and do a great job,” Kelly said. “We’ll just plug-and-play him. What you’ll see is his ability — in the game against Navy, he filled in very nicely, caught a couple passes, did a nice job blocking on the perimeter.

“You just take [St. Brown] out and you put Miles Boykin in there, and we keep rolling.”

And what about Dexter Williams and Cam Smith?

Kelly described Williams (ankle; quad contusion) as “about as 100 percent as we’ve had him.” If that is the case, the junior running back will have a featured role in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith (hamstring) might be not much of a concern most weeks, but St. Brown’s questionable status could create a chance for Smith to return to the offense as a contributing piece.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

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Brian Kelly did not shirk the burden of responsibility after Notre Dame’s 41-8 shellacking at Miami on Saturday. The closest he came to criticizing the Irish defense was pointing out missed assignments on particular run plays, but he quickly turned even that thought into praise of Miami sophomore running back Travis Homer.

“It was the fly-sweep counter that we didn’t fit very well,” Kelly said. “Let’s give Travis Homer some credit. His acceleration through the hole …”

Following Brandon Wimbush’s 10-of-21 passing performance with two interceptions in the biggest game of his young career, the harshest thing Kelly said of the junior quarterback was simply a fact.

“He’s still developing as a quarterback and tonight was not a night to turn the football over against a quality football team,” Kelly said.

Rather than blame his players, Kelly put the onus on himself and his coaching staff.

“The Xs and the Os, the tactical part of it, was not where I thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We’ll go back and really take a good hard look at that.”

Come Sunday, Kelly’s overall point had not shifted. When discussing the interception delivered to the Hurricanes by Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book, Kelly again pointed inward to the staff who developed Book’s reading of the defense.

“We have to coach him better in that situation.”

If Notre Dame’s defense was shell-shocked by the frenzied crowd in Miami Gardens, Kelly faulted a lack of warning for that mental discomfort.

“We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys,” he said. “I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

By no means should Kelly have stood at the podium or sat on a conference call and criticized individual players. He has been lampooned for that in the past, and it is not a college coach’s job to publicly belittle 18- to 21-year-olds. It is, in fact, his job to defend them against such reflexive reactions. That does not change the facts of Saturday night’s fiasco, though.

The loss should be shared.

Kelly and his staff have been in atmospheres like Hard Rock Stadium’s before. They indeed did need to do a better job of setting that stage for the young Irish. They had to know Miami’s defensive speed was of a speed close to, if not equal to, Georgia’s. Developing a better scheme to counteract that needed to be priorities Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

But the players also made rudimentary mistakes. Both of Wimbush’s interceptions — his second one especially — were mistakes of his making, not remarkable plays by the Hurricanes. Most of the 65,303 in attendance could have intercepted Book’s final pass attempt.

Notre Dame’s defensive line, including senior end Andrew Trumbetti (98) and sophomore end Julian Okwara (42, right) could hardly get within an arm’s reach of Miami senior quarterback Malik Rosier on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

They may be young, but the Irish defenders needed to put the noise out of their minds. The missed fits looked to be more a symptom of a moment’s delay, not of missing a hand signal amidst the din. Senior Miami quarterback Malik Rosier never had to hurry. (Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes was credited with exactly one quarterback hurry, the only one from the Irish defense.) Notre Dame made six tackles for loss, but only one cost the Hurricanes more than two yards. There was no genuine pressure put on the home team at any point.

The 2017 version of Kelly will vaguely mention execution as something that lacked Saturday. That discretion is a credit to him.

It does not change the reality that the Irish players did not execute. Be it youth, inexperience or incompetence — and the first two are quite apparent with any look at the roster, let alone a moment watching a game — the fundamental execution will need to improve moving forward for Notre Dame to truly “dominate” as was its mantra from Sept. 10 to Nov. 10.

On the limited reach of any one position group
Aside from a rare quarterback and the once-in-a-generation Ndamukong Suh, no single player or position can change the entire outlook of a game. In Notre Dame’s case, its greatest strength is its offensive line. Without a viable passing attack, however, Miami’s defensive line was able to overcome the Irish run blocking. There was not much fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson were going to do about it. The Hurricanes knew they had to worry about Notre Dame’s ground game. They keyed on it, and the athletic defensive linemen outraced Irish junior running back Josh Adams to the edge time and time again.

Notre Dame should and will continue to attract top-flight offensive line recruits.

“We have a great history of getting great offensive linemen here,” Kelly said Tuesday in answering a forward-looking query. “… We should be really good at running the football here at Notre Dame.”

A brother of this scribe undoubtedly delighted hearing that. Every Christmas he insists on spending the hour between Christmas Eve services and Christmas Eve’s feast asking why the Irish don’t focus more on a power run game. His argumentative style devolves to one similar to his 10-year-old stepdaughter’s. Any reasonable response is met with Why? or How? or Why not? Eventually the cheesy potatoes, cheesy spinach and pork roast are served. His questions abate.

His point is valid, but it is also very incomplete.

Notre Dame cannot rely solely on a power run game until it has a well-rounded offense. Superior defensive lines will make sure of that.

At some point, the Irish will theoretically boast a defensive front capable of neutralizing a one-dimensional attack in a similar fashion. It is not outside the realm of possibility those players are already contributing, led by Hayes and classmates Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovaioloa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish have acquitted themselves quite well this season, even more so when compared to summer’s expectations.

Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has improved that front drastically this season, yet it remains far below the level of Miami’s, Georgia’s and even North Carolina State’s. Elko’s progress has been more than ever could have been anticipated. Closing the entire gap in one year was never feasible.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

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Notre Dame simply was not ready for Miami on Saturday. By the time the first quarter ended and the Hurricanes were posed to build on a 14-0 lead, that was quite apparent. With hindsight, Irish coach Brian Kelly can see the reasons for the 41-8 loss were already at hand before his team even took the field.

“In retrospect, it was a big game, there was a lot to the atmosphere,” Kelly said Sunday. “Our guys really wanted to win. They wanted to win really, really bad.

“I have to do a better job of keeping them in a moment and keeping them from being distracted by all of that’s going on around them.”

Kelly detected a bit more pregame energy in the Notre Dame locker room due to the stakes and the surroundings. Though the Irish routinely play in front of bigger crowds and have twice faced top-15 teams in recent weeks, there was a different feel in Hard Rock Stadium.

“I’ve never given [big games and atmosphere] too much thought, because we play in a big game atmosphere at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “But this one was a little bit different. A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude, since maybe the [2015] Clemson game, and I don’t know if there were many defensive players on the field for that.

“We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

Tracing back to that No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 11 Clemson game, only now-junior, then-freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery recorded a defensive tackle that day, making four. Six other current Irish defenders saw the field, including now-senior, then-sophomore defensive back Nick Coleman making a special teams tackle.

Those jitters showed immediately after each of Notre Dame’s first two turnovers Saturday. Once the Hard Rock crowd was, well, rocking, Miami had little trouble finding the end zone, including covering 32 yards in two plays to go up 14-0.

Those turnovers were a worst-case possibility realized.
Kelly insisted Saturday night he saw none of the Hurricanes onslaught coming. If he anticipated it at all, he expected it to be predicated on turnovers.

“If I saw the turnover chain passed around the bench like Gatorade, that was probably going to be my biggest concern,” he said. “Unfortunately that came to fruition.”

He described junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s first interception as “a bit of a high throw … that should be executed.” The second was thrown behind intended target sophomore receiver Chase Claypool.

“That’s just being more accurate and being on time with the throw.”

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s miscue came on misreading the coverage, identifying what was a man defense as a zone.

“We have to coach him better in that situation.”

The fourth turnover, a strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, could have been avoided only if Wimbush had felt the pressure and stepped up in the pocket.

“We have to demand that in practice there’s that attention to detail,” Kelly said. “Because the process really escaped us in some of those turnovers and that really was a major problem for us Saturday night.”

On injuries
Junior running back Josh Adams suffered a neck sprain Saturday night, but Kelly was not worried about any lasting effects with Navy arriving at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.