Tag: Brian Fremeau

090311_SPT_Umich vs WMU_MRM_

Pregame Six Pack: Late night with Michigan


So Lucy pulled the football out from under us last Saturday, adding a measure of cruelty to the loss that was incredibly difficult to see coming. (Unfortunately, part of me saw it coming.) With a painful first L in the opening ledger of the season, Notre Dame must turn the page to a team that’s provided plenty of gut-punches to Notre Dame fans lately.

With a prime-time start and ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, Notre Dame is set to take on Michigan at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night. We’ll be here with an old-fashioned, frantically paced live blog tomorrow night. Until then, here are are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Brian Kelly‘s Fighting Irish prepare to play Brady Hoke‘s Michigan Wolverines.

There’s been remarkable parity in the modern era between Michigan and Notre Dame.

Since the Irish and the Wolverines renewed their rivalry in 1978, the series has been close. 13-13-1 close.

Saturday night’s game will break a remarkably even record, with both teams sitting at 13 wins and a tie against the other. Michigan has won four of the last five against the Irish, starting with the runaway upset win against Brady Quinn and the Irish in 2006. The Wolverines drubbed the ’07 Irish that started off historically bad, before Notre Dame won an error plagued game against Rich Rodriguez‘s first team in 2008. We all remember 2009 and 2010, which had Michigan quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson taking turns putting on Superman’s cape.

Since 1978, Notre Dame and Michigan have played every year except 1983, ’84, ’95, ’96, 2000, and ’01. Prior to the ’07 game, either Notre Dame or Michigan have been ranked for 24 consecutive meetings. Notre Dame dropped out of the Top 25 after losing to USF, so neither team is ranked this Saturday. And with a point spread that’s hovering around three points, it seems we could be in for another close game, which might actually be good for the Irish. While it doesn’t feel that way, close games in this rivalry usually end up in Notre Dame’s favor, with Notre Dame 4-2-1 in games decided by three points or less.

For the Irish, stop Denard Robinson and win the football game.

Last year, Robinson accounted for an incredible 502 of Michigan’s 532 total yards, scoring the game’s winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to put Michigan ahead 28-24.

“He’s the most electrifying offensive player in the country,” Bob Diaco said earlier this week. “He was a year ago and he is again.”

That electricity was evident last year, when Robinson broke a 87 yard touchdown run with under two minutes to go in the first half, a back-breaking touchdown with the Irish against the ropes and hoping to go into halftime just down a score. But while the Irish’s performance against Robinson deserves no caveats, the Irish held their own when their starting unit was in the game, only to be gashed when Diaco and Kelly tried to work in reserves.

“It starts and ends with Denard Robinson,” Kelly said. “We’re well aware of his talent level. He is a difference maker. Clearly he’s the guy you’ve got to keep an eye on when it comes to Michigan.”

There are a few things working in Notre Dame’s favor when it comes to slowing down Robinson. First, they faced a similarly mobile quarterback in B.J. Daniels last week, and had decent success.

“We have to be able to contain him,” Kelly said. “Like we did with B.J. Daniels, I think his longest run was 17 yards. If we can keep his longest run into that 15-17 yard range, we’ll feel really good about the day’s work.”

One thing also working in the Irish’s favor is new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Borges surprised many by keeping Robinson in the shotgun and designing some running plays for his star quarterback, after an offseason dedicated to working in pro-style sets. Hoke praised Borges for fitting the offense to its personnel.

“He’s done a tremendous job in a lot of different places utilizing the personnel that you have and really showcasing the guys who are your playmakers,” Hoke said this morning on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.

Of course, while Borges engineers plays for Robinson to run, he won’t be able to replicate the system Rodriguez almost perfected, taking advantage of his running backs not as ball carriers, but as lead blockers for his 195-pound quarterback.

On Robinson’s 87-yard touchdown run, Rodriguez had two backs in the backfield next with Robinson in the shotgun, and those eight men in the box beat Diaco’s seven, thanks to some good downfield blocking and a great individual effort by the quarterback.

Again, Robinson is capable of breaking a big play any time. It’ll be up to Borges to be as creative as Rodriguez was at designing them.

Brady Hoke hasn’t faced Notre Dame, but he’s 0-3 against Brian Kelly.

Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke’s careers have taken similar paths, with both coaches getting their first shots in the MAC conference before climbing the ladder to Notre Dame and Michigan at their third D-I coaching stop. (Hell, both guys coached at Grand Valley State.)

While this will be Hoke’s first time facing the Irish as a head coach, he’s gone head-to-head with Kelly three times, with Hoke’s Ball State team falling to Kelly’s Central Michigan squad each time.

2004: Hoke’s Cardinals jumped out to a 27-0 lead in the first quarter before Kelly’s troops picked themselves off the mat, battling back to tie the game at halftime 27-27. The third quarter was all Ball State, who took a ten point lead into the fourth, only to give it up with under five minutes remaining to the Chippewas. Jerry Seymour of CMU ran for the winning touchdown, his third of the day to put a cap on a monstrous 217 yard rushing effort to go along with 35 yards receiving.

2005: Another heart-breaker for the Cardinals, as Ball State jumped out to a quick 14 point lead only to lose in overtime, with the Chippewas storming back for an unlikely win late in the game. Clinging to a four-point lead with two minutes left, Ball State had the ball in CMU territory ready to seal the victory. After an 11 yard sack by Dan Bazuin pushed Ball State back to their side of the 50, Chris Miller‘s punt was blocked and Ryan Strehl scooped it up for the score. The Cardinals would march down and kick a field goal to send the game to overtime, but the Chippewas would score a touchdown in four plays, then stymie Hoke’s offense on a 4th and one. The win gave Central their first winning season under Kelly.

2006: With quarterback Dan LeFevour leading the way, the Chippewas improved to 4-0 in conference play, winning a defensive struggle against Ball State 18-7. LeFevour ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns, threw for another 160 yards, and the Chippewas held Ball State to 213 total yards, forcing five turnovers against Nate Davis and the conference’s leading passing attack.

Saturday night’s game will obviously be on a much bigger stage, but there’s no way either coach has forgotten three games that were so hotly contested.

Like it is in every game, protecting the football is critical to success.

It’s pretty obvious, Notre Dame isn’t going to win many games if it coughs up the football five times again, especially doing it in such inopportune times. Right now, a lot of Irish fans are willing to give Notre Dame a mulligan for last week’s bizarre behavior, with some of the team’s most solid performers guilty of the most egregious mistakes.

How big of a play was Jonas Gray‘s fumble return for a touchdown? Well consider Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, who called it the most valuable play in football.

The Gray fumble occured on third-and-goal, but let’s imagine the same play occuring on a drive that starts with first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line. In this case, the expected scoring value of the offense’s drive is more than six points. The same play in this scenario is then worth the value of killing a six-point drive plus the value of the touchdown return. We might like to call it a 14-point play, but according to my unit value splits, it would officially be credited with a defensive value of 11.1 points. Remember that there is unearned value on every possession, so the defense doesn’t get the full credit for the 14-point swing, but a defensive score following a goal-to-go turnover is the most valuable single play in football.

Both Kelly and Gray are saying the right things this week and Gray took his session with the media like a man and answered every question asked of him. Jonas will be returning home to Michigan, ready to play in front of family and friends and a school that didn’t offer him a scholarship. And if the Irish are able to get Gray going along with Cierre Wood, they’ll be able to take advantage of one of Michigan defense’s weaknesses.

“We’ve got to be a much better defense versus the run,” Hoke told Dan Patrick. “I don’t think our front seven did the job that we need to have them do.”

Of course, the Irish need to clean up their own backyard first. And that means stopping the turnovers and cashing in on the opportunities that present themselves. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Hoke’s team needs to build on their impressive debut forcing turnovers, starting +3 and turning two of them into defensive touchdowns.

“I think they’ve got some confidence because they scored on defense,” Kelly said. “Any time you score on defense you create an energy that can be contagious.”

The special teams need to be more special.

We’ll get to Notre Dame’s special teams play in a second. Brady Hoke’s unit has a lot of cleaning up to do as well.

“I think our guys know we didn’t perform like we should,” Hoke said. “We’ll look at some other guys in there a little.”

The Wolverines gave up good field position to Western Michigan multiple times on kickoff returns, with Dervon Wallace averaging better than 31 yards a return last Saturday. Making things worse, UM also had an extra point blocked, adding another headache to a laundry list of things that needed cleaning up.

With a large contingency of starters taking special teams snaps, Hoke and the Wolverines can’t afford any injuries, but also can’t afford to keep his best players off a unit that already strugged.

Speaking of struggling units, the Irish special teams played their worst game under Brian Kelly. Theo Riddick muffed punts, Ben Turk shanked them, and David Ruffer, Mr. Automatic last season, missed a crucial 30-yard chip shot from the left hashmark.

While turnovers might have been the fatal flaw of last week’s game, the Irish special teams weren’t far behind.

More from Fremeau:

South Florida’s special teams created another valuable single-play possession-change sequence by recovering a muffed punt in the second quarter. The turnover by Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick was worth 1.7 points in lost possession value, and the resulting field position for South Florida at the Irish 20-yard-line was worth an additional 3.4 points generated by the special teams play. The total value of the sequence (5.1 points) wasn’t quite as strong as the total value of the drive-turnover-return sequence that opened the game (6.3 points), but it was awfully close.

In the end, special teams account for the scoring margin of the game. South Florida earned a 12-point advantage through punt exchanges, turnovers, and place kicking success. Notre Dame’s second half offense actually erased the entire deficit generated by its red zone miscues by moving the ball and creating enough other scoring opportunities to win. And the defense held South Florida in check throughout the day, surrendering only one touchdown drive.

I’ll give Theo Riddick a one-game reprieve before calling the punt return experiment a huge bust, but he definitely struggled getting underneath the football on punts, rushing to the football late and making it harder on himself than he needs to. I’m tired of giving Turk mulligans, as the Irish punter can’t seem to kick the ball anywhere near as good on the big stage as he does practicing.

The Irish are going to be playing a team where a special teams victory is there for the taking. It’s up to Mike Elston‘s troops to straighten things out and take advantage of a potentially game changing opportunity.

Pressure vs. Pressure: How the Irish handle both sides of the ball will determine the game.

Offensively, Denard Robinson is able to put pressure on the Irish defense better than any other player in the country. Defensively, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will do his best to confuse and disrupt the Irish offense, relying on pressure from linebackers, safeties, and everyone in between.

For the Irish defense, the game plan focuses on simplicity.

“You’ve got to keep your players, those that can tackle and those that can chase him down,  in a position to do so,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep them in proximity to where Denard is going to be. You can’t have them in a position where they can’t run and hit. It’s very important structurally defensively that we put our guys in the right position.”

While the comment comes dangerously close to venturing into Ty Willingham territory, the Irish have to play assignment correct football and not fall prey to big plays in the playaction passing game or runs by Robinson. If Skip Holtz‘s attitude against Notre Dame was “make them run another play,” Diaco’s strategy should be the same. The Irish have too much skill to get beat on defense if they can successfully bend and not break.

The theme is similar on the offensive side of the ball. With a defense that struggled in high-tempo situations against Western Michigan, the Wolverines know they’ll likely face tempo and a variety of formations when facing the Irish. To counter that, they’ll also try to dictate terms by forcing Tommy Rees to make decisions faster than he wants to.

How the cat and mouse between Mattison and Kelly goes should determine Saturday night’s game.

“Certainly they’re going to want to bring pressure,” Kelly said yesterday. “But Tommy does a pretty good job getting the ball out of his hands. We do a pretty good job of protecting. That’s part of what he’ll do, but I don’t think it’s everything, because clearly they’re going to have to play some zone coverage, because if you let Michael Floyd out there, I like our chances.”

Kelly points to Michigan’s largest flaw: a defense that still doesn’t have the talent necessary to cover receivers without a pass rush, and a pass rush unable to get to the quarterback without bringing added pressure. Mattison learned from Rex Ryan and the Ravens the art of deception and scheme when bringing blitzers. Whether he’s able to get to the quarterback and create turnovers will likely determine who goes home happy Saturday night.

What though the odds: ND beat USC despite field position

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Last season’s Irish victory over the Trojans will be remembered for many things — a rain-soaked evening, Robert Hughes’ power running, Ronald Johnson’s dropped pass, and the Irish defense’s gutsy performance. The 20-16 victory ended an eight-game losing streak for Notre Dame against Southern Cal, and while history will likely remember the Irish’s two-minute drill capped by Robert Hughes bulldozing his way into the endzone, it’ll likely forget just how impressive the Irish’s defense played, especially considering how badly the Irish lost the battle for field position.

In an article in Maple Street Press’ “Irish Kickoff 2011,” Brian Fremeau takes a look at the turf war a football team fights throughout the year and how a season’s field position advantage (FPA) is often times one of the great predictors for a team’s success.

Put simply, a team winning the field position battle (or in Fremeau’s statistical breakdown, finishing with a FPA > .500) wins the football game two-thirds of the time. Teams with a FPA > .600 win games 90% of the time, a staggering win rate. With those stats in mind, it’s even more impressive that Notre Dame walked away from the Coliseum with a win.

I’ll let Fremeau explain:

In the last 10 seasons, prior to last fall’s USC game, there were six match-ups in which Notre Dame’s opponent had at least four more drives start in plus territory than did the Fighting Irish. The results were not pretty — the 2004 Oregon State Insight Bowl loss; the debacles against Georgia Tech, Michigan, and Michigan State in 2007; the 2008 Boston College shutout; and the 2010 Stanford game. The average margin of defeat for Notre Dame in those six lopsided field position affairs was a non-competitive 24 points. Against USC, Notre Dame overcame the biggest field position deficit it faced in at least a decade, turning what might have been another multiple-score embarrassment into a glorious triumph.

Fact-checking a box score may not be a sexy way to go down in history, but while Irish fans look to pin the heroics on the back of guys like Hughes, Michael Floyd’s one-man army, or nice performances by Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore, the real hero is an eleven-man collective that put together crucial stops against a Trojan offense starting deep in Irish territory.

In a game that felt like it was Notre Dame’s for much of the evening, Fremeau’s analysis gives you an idea of just how improbable Notre Dame’s win was. To end a losing streak, the Irish defense put a team on its back on a cold, rainy night in Los Angeles.  With the odds truly against them, Brian Kelly’s defense put together a performance for the ages.


For more on the subject, and a collection of articles written by some of the best voices following Notre Dame football (and some schmuck named Keith Arnold), treat yourself to Maple Street Press’ Irish Kickoff 2011. If you don’t think it’s worth the ten bucks, shoot me an email, and if I buy your argument, I’ll refund your money myself. 


Proof in numbers: Defense greatly improved


(You’re expecting another Michael Floyd update? We’ll get there, I promise.)

A few of the best statistical minds in the ND hive have crunched some year end numbers and there are official numbers to prove what we all know — the Irish defense improved.

Under the direction of Bob Diaco, Notre Dame improved in just about every category across the board. They did it by simplifying their scheme, reinforcing fundamentals, and better understanding what members of the defense do best. When you consider the injuries that decimated just about every level of the defense, Diaco, and position coaches Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks, and Chuck Martin turned in excellent performances in year one.

The legendary FunkDoctorSpock took a look at the broad brush strokes, which all point in an incredibly positive direction. In four major defensive categories — rushing defense, passing efficiency, total defense and scoring defense — the Irish jumped at least 36 spots in the national rankings.

RUSHING DEFENSE: 50th (up 39 spots from 89th last year)
PASS EFFICIENCY: 25th (up 57 spots from 82nd last year)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 50th (up 36 spots from 86th last year)
SCORING DEFENSE: 23rd (up 40 spots from 63rd last year)

In 2009, the Irish faced six teams in the top 40 rushing offenses, with Nevada and Navy in the Top Five. This season, facing seven teams ranked in the top 40 rushing offenses, and the Irish jumped 39 spots.

The same song can be sung for the other categories. Passing efficiency? The Irish faced seven Top 40 teams in 2010. In ’09, they only faced five. Checking the numbers in the other categories, the Irish had a far tougher slate of opponents this season and took a giant step forward in just one year in Diaco’s scheme.

Taking things to the next level, Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders and BCF Toys did some more number crunching and found some areas where the Irish were truly elite, ranking in the Top 15 nationally.

They include:

No. 11 in forcing three-and-outs (40% of opponent possessions), TCU ranked first (49.2%)
No. 11 in surrendering available points (37.1%); TCU ranked first (26.4%)
No. 12 in fewest points allowed per drive (1.46); Boise State ranked first (0.96)
No. 14 in defensive efficiency (offensive drive value over expectation based on field position)

While these four stats won’t find their way onto a telestrator or network broadcast, these are four critical places where the Irish defense truly played exceptional football.

If you’re looking for reasons to believe the Irish defense will take another big leap in 2011, look no further than the exceptional play down the stretch by Notre Dame. Even without Ian Williams, a defensive line returning with just about every significant minute played returns, joined by a linebacking corp that’ll need to replace only Brian Smith and Kerry Neal from the rotation and a secondary that’ll be short starting cornerback Darrin Walls.

Looking for an even better indicator for the defense? Try season two of Brian Kelly’s offensive evolution. Both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees took the first significant snaps of their careers in 2010, limiting the Irish offense even before key injuries to Armando Allen, Theo Riddick and Kyle Rudolph. If the Irish can play the type of high-tempo, quick-strike offense Kelly wants to, it’ll help put the pressure on opposing offenses to get one-dimensional, something an improving Notre Dame pass rush will surely take advantage of (the Irish jumped from 84th to 55th in sacks, impressive considering Diaco didn’t send blitzers nearly every play like his predecessor).

The numbers prove what just about anyone who watched the Irish play this season saw very clearly: Notre Dame’s defense took a huge step forward.