Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Rising Numbers

June 24, 2017

No matter what job it is, when someone new is brought in, people expect better results than the previous guy. Brian Kelly wouldn't have made so many changes without an expectation of improvement.

Mike Elko was brought in to replace Brian VanGorder and the Greg Hudson/Mike Elston combination on defense and Chip Long was hired to replace former play-caller Mike Denbrock on the other side of the ball. Why those two new guys in particular? It's not as simple as the numbers, but it definitely played a role in Kelly's thought process. Statistically, Long and Elko had superior groups than Notre Dame had last season.

Some of those statistics are obvious with things that people are more familiar with like points per game or total yards. But looking at Elko's defense at Wake Forest and Long's offense at Memphis with some deeper analytics courtesy of Football Outsiders, Football Study Hall, and College Football Analytics show that these two coaches may be able to help Notre Dame's offense and defense in even more specific ways to help turn around the program in 2017.

3 and outs

Failing to make a first down on offense is incredibly deflating. No surprise then that it's the polar opposite when your defense forces a 3 and out. Last season Notre Dame was below average at forcing 3 and outs according to Football Study Hall with a rate that had them 67th in the nation. On offense they had far too many 3 and outs and ended up 73rd in that category.

The good news is that there should be hope for improvement in 2017. Memphis was 27th on offense and if the Irish can approach that number rather than 73rd, that should help quite a bit. What's also encouraging about that Memphis number is that they converted at least one first down on a drive at a good rate while often running uptempo in terms of pace. I could see some people being concerned about Notre Dame getting off the field quickly if they can't convert while playing fast, but that wasn't an issue for Long at Memphis.

Elko's defense at Wake Forest was 31st at forcing 3 and outs. If his defense is good at forcing them and Long's offense is off the field more when they are scoring quickly rather than punting, it should translate in a big way for the Irish this season.

3rd and long and sacks

I wrote a piece earlier this week on some scheme Mike Elko likes to use on 3rd down and that scheme was effective for him. His defenses have been very good on 3rd down over the last five years and were 18th last season in opponent conversion percentage.

One big reason why they were in addition to scheme was that they made it more difficult for the offense by forcing 3rd and long often. They were 38th in average distance on 3rd down according to College Football Analytics. Notre Dame was near the basement ranking 113th.

The Irish may not have had great pass rushers, but it's even tougher to get sacks when you aren't doing a good job on 1st and 2nd down of forcing teams into obvious passing situations.

This brings me to another striking statistic. Wake Forest was 14th in Football Outsiders' Passing Down Sack Rate, which measures the number of sacks on those same type of 3rd and long situations. Notre Dame was 120th. Yikes.

So to sum it up, the Irish were bad at forcing passing situations and bad at getting to the quarterback when they had those situations. Wake was the exact opposite. Throw in the Havoc Rate discrepancy between Wake (28th) and Notre Dame (102nd) and it's clear why it was a no-brainer to target Elko as the next defensive coordinator. Hopefully he helps the Irish flip the script this season.

Points (and the possibility for more points)

Memphis scored a lot in 2016. They almost put up 40 points per game and scored more than even Brian Kelly's prolific offense he ran in his last season at Cincinnati.

One stat that correlates to scoring that stuck out to me about Long's offense was Value Drive Rate (OVD), which is something Brian Fremeau uses to calculate his FEI offense rankings on Football Outsiders. OVD is "the percentage of offensive drives that begin at least 50 yards from the end zone and reach the opponent's 30 yard line". Essentially it is any drive makes it to field goal range.

Memphis was really good at getting into the scoring area consistently. Notre Dame was not. They were much more inconsistent and finished 60th in this category. Memphis was 17th.

I know the red zone has always been an issue and it wasn't a great area for Long last season (at least statistically speaking). It hasn't been great for Notre Dame either. But this is a good indication that Long's offense was getting in position to score a lot more than Notre Dame did and that's definitely a positive step the Irish need to make this fall.


This is kind of an obvious one and has been talked about quite a bit already. Notre Dame plans to play more uptempo this season under Long. That isn't a secret.

How much faster will the offense go? That's a more appropriate question. Memphis was 19th in number of plays per minute last season. Essentially they played at a pace that was in the top 20 in the nation. Notre Dame was 71st in plays per minute.

So, how much faster? A lot. The pace will definitely pick up this season and let's hope the other areas I mentioned pick up as well.
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