Eliminate the Negative…
In Charlie Weis’ latest interview on UND.com (I’d link, but UND.com has such a rotten interface that links are nearly useless), he mentions that the Line of Scrimmage in the UCLA game was “moving in the right direction,” meaning that even though the offense wasn’t tearing apart the UCLA defense, at least positive things were happening for the Irish and negative things, for the most part, were not.
It reminded me of how my 6th grade football coach would harp on us, over and over again, “you only need to get 3 yards!” He figured if you could always get 3 yards, then you were unstoppable in a football game. Not a novel theory, to be sure, but it stuck with me somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind between the total number of people born on this planet between the last regular season game for Ohio State in 2006 and last year’s National Championship (18,267,792), and the total caloric intake of an Arby’s 5-for-5 deal (1750).
Anyway, going with an old school theory like the “3 yards and a cloud of dust,” and Weis’ point that the offensive line seemed to be moving in the right direction, I decided to look and see if he was right, and if it really matters all that much.
I took every game played by the Irish in 2007 and looked at the yardage gained or lost by each play, and then threw each play in various buckets. For example, a completed pass for 9 yards would fit in the “>0”, “>=2”, “>=3”, “>=5”, and “<10" categories. I counted an interception as a 0 yards play for the offense that threw it. I counted a lost fumble based on the yardage gained or lost before the fumble occurred. All other plays were taken as total yards gained or lost during play. Plays that had live-ball, accepted penalties were not included in the calculations. You can see all of the numbers here: (you can also view the worksheet in another window by clicking here)
The first thing that jumps out to me is that, in the last 2 games, ND has managed around 30% more “positive plays” (plays that gained at least 1 yard) than they managed in each of the previous 4 games. (This may be easier to see if you click on the “pos_neg” tab at the bottom of the worksheet.) In the first 3 games, ND only managed to execute plays that resulted in positive yardage 30-34 times. In the games against Purdue and UCLA, ND has managed positive yardage plays 47 and 43 times respectively. That wasn’t a big surprise given the way ND passed in the 2nd half against Purdue, but I was surprised to see that result against UCLA. The game just didn’t “feel” like that. There weren’t any long drives by the ND offense, but they did nearly achieve the same number of positive plays against UCLA as they did against Purdue. So, as Charlie mentioned, the line of scrimmage was, in fact, moving in a more positive direction for ND against UCLA that it had been in the past. And that’s a pretty good performance against a pretty good defense.
Now let’s take a look at that old school “3 yards and a cloud…” theory of football. (The “3 yards” link at the bottom of the worksheet might help.) Within the context of the UCLA game, we get a bit of a surprise. ND actually didn’t achieve any more 3+ yard plays than they have in most of the other games. In all but the Purdue game, ND has managed just 24-28 plays that resulted in a gain of 3+ yards. (Against Purdue, they managed 44 such plays.) So, at least in the context of the UCLA game (where ND was +7 in turnover ratio), this theory didn’t quite hold. In fact, UCLA managed 35 3+ yardage plays to ND’s 26. Granted, the theory isn’t based on who has the most 3+ yardage plays, but you’d think the winner in that category would at least be competitive in the game (yeah, I know: 7 turnovers).
Just for kicks, I also looked at 5+ and 10+ yardage plays for ND and their opponents (“5 yards” and “10 yards” tabs). And in the context of the UCLA game, I was surprised to see that ND had one of their worst showings all year in both categories, achieving just 13 plays that gained 5 or more yards and 4 plays that gained 10 or more yards. Overall, the offense was able to kill some significant clock time in the 2nd half, so I figured they’d have a few more solid 5-10 yard plays to make up for the missing 3 yarders. Meanwhile, the ND defense still allowed about their usual number of 5 and 10 yard gainers.
Now for the really big difference (“negatives” tab). In a game like the one between ND and UCLA, it was vital not to make mistakes, and ND managed to do just that while UCLA, with their walk-on QB, imploded (with a lot of help from a (finally!) nasty, attacking ND defense). ND only had 6 plays that resulted in a loss of more than 2 yards, and 3 plays that resulted in a loss greater than 5 yards. They had no plays resulting in more than 10 yards lost. In fact, in the MSU, Purdue, and UCLA games, they’ve suffered only 1 play that has resulted in more than 10 yards lost. That’s a big improvement over the prior 3 weeks, during which ND suffered 7 plays that resulted in more than 10 yards lost. Think about that: On top of all the interceptions and turnovers, ND’s managed to average 2.3 “drive annihilators” in the first 3 games. They’re only averaging .33 such plays in the last 3 games.
ND hasn’t become a consistently productive offense yet, but at least in the last 3 games, they’ve significantly reduced the demoralizing plays. That alone gives the team a much better shot at winning games. The offense is able to build more yardage, and the defense gets put in better and better positions. And as the UCLA game shows, if ND can eliminate the big mistakes, and play some solid defense, they are at least competitive. Really, the performance against UCLA wasn’t half bad, because once the walk-on QB started playing for UCLA and ND got up by 2 TDs, it was clear to everyone on Earth that Weis wasn’t going to risk a big, game-changing play by throwing the ball all over the field. UCLA could expect run on just about every ND offensive snap, stack the box, pinch the LBs, and let their already excellent run-supporting safeties attack the rushing lanes. If the Irish do begin to consistently produce on offense, they should be more than just “competitive.” They should be able to win consistently, especially against the remaining 6 opponents. Hopefully we’ll see evidence of that against BC. ND has shown they can run (against MSU), they can pass (against Purdue), and they can play keep-away even when a good defense knows it is coming (against UCLA). It’s time to put it all together.