Notre Dame’s thorough run struggles may finally reach needed reprieve

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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Running back Chris Tyree is familiar with the rumble of Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium and its blaring tradition of “Enter Sandman.” The Virginia native is even familiar with it when Notre Dame comes to town.

No. 14 Notre Dame’s Saturday trip to Blacksburg (7:30 ET; ACCN) marks the first in the sophomore running back’s Irish tenure, but Tyree was on a recruiting visit with the Hokies when Notre Dame overcame a slow start to down then-No. 24 Virginia Tech 45-23 in 2018. 

“The stadium was literally shaking, it was so loud,” Tyree said

So loud, in fact, that Notre Dame was whistled for a false start on the second snap of the game. That’s one error that could prove costly this weekend in Blacksburg, the burden of which falls on an offensive line that has labored through 2021’s first five games. It’s an offensive line that has struggled to create opportunities for Tyree and Kyren Williams, who have seen their productivity take a dive compared to breakouts in 2020.

Tyree’s average of 6.8 yards per carry last year is down to 3.1 yards per carry in 2021. Williams is in a similar position, with his average dropping from 5.3 to 3.8 yards per attempt.

But the Irish ground woes may be better illustrated by other metrics. Consider this: According to CFB Graphs, Notre Dame’s expected points added per rush is -0.217 through five games. In other words, every time the Irish run the ball, they decrease their expected points scored by 0.217.

For Notre Dame, that’s not a heartening metric. But it comes with a silver lining: The matchup against the Hokies measures up better than those with Wisconsin and Cincinnati.

Virginia Tech’s defensive average EPA per rush is 0.207, per CFB Graphs, meaning the Hokies’ opponents have seen their expected points increase by that margin with each rush. Compare that to Wisconsin’s defensive average EPA per rush of -0.279 points and Cincinnati’s of -0.217 points, and it’s clear Williams and Tyree could be primed for their best outcome in weeks.

That still hinges on the offensive line, but despite external criticism, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has pushed back against too much blame being placed on the unit.

“The offensive line is always going to get the scrutiny,” he said before the Cincinnati game. “But this isn’t, let’s throw the O-line under the bus.”

Kelly doubled down defending his offensive line this week.

“You say that it focuses squarely just on those five guys, where it’s not just those five guys,” he said Monday. “It’s the totality of [the offense] and making sure that all of that works well, and that’s definitely work that needs to happen when you get a couple extra days, but we got to get them all together.”

Twitter: @statsowar
(Twitter: @statsowar)

Notre Dame is averaging just 80.8 rushing yards per game, but Virginia Tech gives up an average of 138. Again, there may be a more telling metric: the teams’ respective success rates. CFB Graphs tracks Notre Dame’s rushing success rate at an abysmal 29.9 percent, which ranks the Irish No. 118 in the country. Whether or not a rush counts toward the positive success rate depends on down and distance — on first down, a ball carrier needs to pick up 40 percent of yards needed to move the chains. That number jumps to 60 percent on second down, then to 100 percent on third and fourth.

Michael Bryan of 18 Stripes broke down the statistic by Irish running back. In 2020, Tyree’s success rate was 45.2 percent; this season, it has dropped to 34.4 percent. Williams’ increased ineffectiveness is similar: 46.4 percent in 2020 and 31.2 percent in 2021.

In a similar case as with EPA per rush, Notre Dame’s low marks are countered this week by the fact that the Hokies’ defensive rushing success rate is 42.6 percent, ranking 90th in the country. For perspective, while no advanced statistic was required to glean how talented Wisconsin’s run defense was, its defensive rushing success rate illustrates it well. The Badgers rank fourth in the country in the metric, holding opponents to a ground success rate of a paltry 25.0 percent.

These figures are inseparable from the performance of Notre Dame’s offensive line, but Wisconsin and Cincinnati have held their other opponents to similarly impressive numbers. Notre Dame’s running backs can perhaps be better evaluated after this weekend when a poor performance on paper won’t be attributed to as formidable an opponent.

Furthermore, life should get only easier for the Irish ground game. While playing Notre Dame certainly helped the numbers for their first five opponents’ defenses, it should still be noted Wisconsin and Cincinnati were not the only good fronts the Irish have faced. Four of their first five opponents rank in the top-25 in rush defense EPA. Even Florida State ranks tied for 44th.

USC and North Carolina fare better than Virginia Tech, ranked No. 114 with the aforementioned 0.207 expected points added per rush faced, but they trail all five defenses Notre Dame has already faced, coming in at No. 52 and No. 54, respectively.

If history is any indication, the offensive line would face the brunt of the external backlash should there be another lackluster ground performance on Saturday and then the rest of October, but Tyree will not absolve himself from that blame, echoing the tone set by Kelly.

“It’s a feeling where we have to, one, get back to the basics, get back to our process and start back from the ground up,” he said.

If the Irish running backs are looking to build from the ground up, the Hokies’ defense might provide the foundation they need.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.