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Analytics Matter: Annotating Notre Dame’s 2020-2021 drives shows what went wrong with the offense

Notre Dame failed on the field on 3rd down, because Notre Dame failed in the coaching box on 2nd down.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 03 East-West Shrine Bowl Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before we begin, I think I should probably once again emphasize the following: No critique I make of Tommy Rees as an OC comes from a position of animosity or bad faith. I base my beliefs on his merits the same way that I base most of beliefs — it is evidence driven. The next few pieces are once again evidence-driven, and in some ways gentler, some ways far harsher regarding his body of work at Notre Dame.

I wish him nothing but success. But the 40 games he directed do exist, and the lessons and data we draw from them must be the basis for honest critique.

Last week, I gave you the data behind Tommy Rees’s results as the trigger man for the Notre Dame offense. We noted that the ‘Domer offense had done a few things well at times, but never reached an elite status (not only was not elite, it was downright putrid in many of their biggest outings).

It is not unfair to say that our takeaways were: 1. the Notre Dame offense was out of their league against other ranked teams — scoring under 20 points 4 times in 9 games; 2. overall scoring averages were inflated by feasting on bad teams — a problem with using averages, for sure, but just about 50% of the time, ND couldn’t even get to 20 points; and 3. there was an overall lack of scoring consistency (in 60% of his 40 games as OC, Notre Dame failed to score the 38 points Saban aims for.)

But why exactly?
What made the Notre Dame offense a pistol that mostly shot off its own toes...when it wasn’t firing blanks?

Two things, in a nutshell: 1. Rees’s playcalling was often an analytical nightmare, and 2. the failure to develop quarterbacks.

The turnover / quarterbacking issue is a problem that is going to have to be addressed separately. So, in this installment, we’ll look at the single greatest thing that was in Rees’s control, a factor that derailed the offense 2/3rds of the time: He wasted way too many possessions by calling the worst standard-down analytical play in football — 2nd and long runs. These failed runs resulted in YOLO 3rd down attempts, where the Irish were dreadful.

Let’s take a look at what happened in the 8 games that Notre Dame lost while Rees was guiding the offense. And this in itself will have to be two parts: Today, we’ll see how he called plays under Brian Kelly. As we are acutely aware, control freak Boomers with anger issues often do constrain their offenses. The second part will be those four losses in 2022, when Rees was calling the offense out from under the thumb of Kelly.

Here are the drive data from those first four losses of 2020-2021. It’s broken down into: Drive, 2nd-long / distance and the rushing yards gained (generally termed “wasted downs”), and the outcome of the drive.

I will annotate the drive with interesting points.

2020: Clemson 34 Notre Dame 10

D1. 2/10 run 2 yards; 2/15 run, 7 yards — FG

  • ND scored a FG on this drive despite two wasted 2nd Downs, both with unsuccessful runs, and leaving itself in 3rd and long. This is absolutely an outlier result — not just with Notre Dame, but with any football team. It’s rare that a team gets away with it once in a series to go on and score, much less twice.

D2. 2nd/8 run 9 yards, 2nd / goal run 5 yards — Missed FG

  • This is interesting because despite two poor analytical play calls, ND had a successful outcome on both, and was in position to score. #CollegeKickers

D3. 2nd/9 run 3 yards, 2nd/7 run 3 yards — Downs

  • After the above two drives, we finally see what is the far more likely outcome when you tempt the fates: two wasted second downs, two unsuccessful rush attempts, no points on the board, and a TO on downs.

D4. Half

  • At this point, ND’s ineffective offense has given Clemson great field position and they’re cashing it. It’s 24-3 at half. Would that outcome and perhaps a sense of urgency change Rees’s playcalling?

D5. 2/14 run 3 yards, — Punt

  • No. It did not. Wasted down, unsuccessful attempt, forced to punt.

D6 2 run 2 yards — Punt

  • Nope. Still didn’t learn. Wasted down, unsuccessful attempt, forced to punt.

D7 2nd 10 run, 3 yards — Punt

  • Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Wasted down, unsuccessful attempt, forced to punt. At this point, it is 31-3, Clemson.

D8 No 2/long runs — TD

  • For the first meaningful time all game, Rees steers clear of wasted 2nd downs and — surprise, surprise! — an offense meant to drive the field actually does so, then scores. Window dressing? Perhaps. But it was good to see.
  • While it is late to do anything with this 34-10 loss, ND is positioned nicely for the playoffs. Let’s see what Rees took away from that stomping, as the Fighting Irish prepare to face the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl.

D9. Garage time data — Omitted

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame
Yes, this was a 3rd and long YOLO attempt. It did not work.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

2020: Alabama 31 Notre Dame 14

D1. 3/15 run, 7 yards — Punt

  • Sigh. Wasted down, unsuccessful attempt, forced to punt.

D2. 2/8 run, 2 yards run — Punt

  • Second verse, same as the first.

D3. 2/9 run, 5 yards; 2/10 run, 9 yards; 2/7 run, 4 yards — Touchdown

  • Just like the second drive of the Clemson game, Notre Dame called three poor analytical 2d down plays. They were all successful, however (thanks, Pete!), and after tempting the Gods, the Irish get on the board. The fear for fans here has to be that after it finally worked, Rees will lean into it he did against Clemson.

D4. 2/9 3 — Punt

  • And he did. And, yep, this outcome is usually what happens. Wasted down, unsuccessful run, punt. Notre Dame is now down 21-7, with Alabama getting the ball after half.


D5. No wasted down, ND drives the field — Missed FG

  • This is what you wanted to see, some adjustment out of the locker room. Though ND did bog down again, the offense was still in FG range during what was still a competitive game. Let’s see if Tommy learns from it, after ‘Bama takes a 28-7 lead.

D6. 2/14, 1 yard run — Punt

  • Trailing by three TDs, Rees goes full into surrender cobra with a predictable 2nd / long wasted down leading to a three-and-out and giving Alabama the ball down by three scores, putting that dangerous Tide offense right back on to the field.

D7. 2/11 Run, 1 yard — Downs

  • ND had avoided outting itself in second and long for its first few series of downs. But the first time ND had 2/long, back goes Tommy into his shell. And that hat bad three-and-out in Drive No. 6? Yeah, it cost ND — Alabama converted on its next drive, 31-7 Alabama

D8. No wasted down — TD

  • Again, like the Clemson game, Notre Dame gets a last minute score against ‘Bama to make the offense look better than it had been. And again, as in the Clemson game, when the Irish took the smart analytical play and didn’t dive right into the LOS on 2nd and long, they were able to score (or at least put the offense in position to earn some points in the kicking game.

Here is the tale of the tape for the two losses of 2020, and something immediately leaps out at you.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 75%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 31.25%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 16.66%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd down: 100%
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 33%
  • 3rd Down % overall — 51%

It’s not pretty: in the Irish’s two biggest games of 2020, outside of garbage time, ND scored 17 points. BUT, let’s hold out hope. We now see that when ND did not waste downs, the Irish could put points on the board. Will that lesson travel into 2021? After all, Rees was a first-time playcaller and deserves time to learn his craft, right?

2021: Cincinnati 24 Notre Dame 13

D1. No wasted down — INT

  • See that turnover up there? Get used to it; there are a lot of them. Notre Dame’s quarterback play was intermittently execrable this game. Rees came out with a decent idea, distributing the ball to many receivers, and challenging the secondary outside of Sauce. And, as we saw in 2020, when Rees didn’t waste the down, ND was capable of moving the ball. But on the 11th play, Coan got sloppy with a terrible read, and killed the drive at the 1 yard line. Ahmad Gardner is not who you challenge in tight space.

D2. 2/8, 3 yard run — Punt

  • Having been burned by Sauce, ND immediately goes into its shell wasting 2nd down. They did convert on 3rd down, but then took a penalty on 1D and essentially surrendered on the drive, diving right into the LOS on the first snap.

D3. 2/11, 9 yard run, Punt

  • Still freaked out by Coan’s pick earlier, once again Rees turtles up, diving right into the LOS on 1D, then destroying the drive with a garbage 2/11 run. This three-and-out was so flaccid that Mike Shula got sick to his stomach.

D4. 2/10, 1 yard run — INT

  • This is exactly what we mean by not putting players in good positions. After a very good first drive, Rees proceeds to kill the next three with awful 2/10 runs, then asking his QB to make a play on 3rd and long against the best secondary in the country last year. How did that work out? Another turnover.
  • Cincy finally cashes in, making it 7-0. Will Notre Dame wake up? Not really. Tyree proceeds to immediately fumble the KOR, that Cincy gets points off of. Domers down now 10-0.

D5. 2/10, -2 yard run — Punt

  • Drive starts off well with an 11-yard pass, then loses yards on the next play. Facing second an long, yup, he did it again. Somehow by the grace of Touchdown Jesus, ND is still alive after converting on successive long 3rd downs. But on its third 3rd and long, Rees calls a pass 4-yards short of the sticks and ND has to punt in plus-territory. Infuriating to watch. This was Iowa-bad.
  • It was also brutal — Cincy would drive the field 90+ yards and score: Three scores to this Irish team may as well have been 50.

D6. No wasted 2D — Punt

  • ND started by diving at the LOS on 1D, but improbably picks up 23-yards on 2nd 10 via pass. Their next five snaps would be incomplete throws. Coan was a mess.

D7. No wasted 2D —

  • With the clock winding down. ND tries to generate something with the erratic Coan, and is forced to punt to end the half.


D8. No wasted 2D — Punt

  • This was good to see, after ND had fumbled around and dicked off in all-but-one of its previous five series, Rees went back to the well that had worked on the game’s opener: he was aggressive on 2nd down. Though the score was just 17-0, the Irish had some urgency and decided to not concede 2nd down...they also benched Coan for Drew Pyne.
  • It does not result in points, but ND gains 50 yards on 9 plays and flips the field.

D9 No wasted 2D — TD

  • Irish force a fumble. And after a strong first down run, set up Pyne for some PA passing. Next three throws are solid, and ND finally gets on the board.

D10. No wasted 2D — Punt

  • No wasted down here, but Pyne couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Irish meekly throw three times and punt.

D11. No wasted 2D — TD

  • Perhaps the best (or second-best) series Rees called all game. Irish marched 80 yards in 8 plays, get the score and cut the game to 17-13
  • Afterwards, Cincy would get a score, putting the Irish in a hole. What UC did thereafter was baffling.

D12. 2/10 2, 3/13 5 — Downs
Yup. Runs on 2/10 and 3/13 with the Irish needing two scores and little time in which to operate.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 50%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 17.5%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 8.75%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd / 3rd down: 8.75% (2 interceptions and 2 loss on downs is brutal).
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 26.25%
  • 3rd Down % overall: 18%

For better and worse, this game was the full Tommy Rees experience. He can adapt, but is inconsistent about sticking with it. When something adverse happens, he becomes quite conservative, often putting the team in a greater hole. When he’s not wasting downs, the offense was moving quite well. But, too often it takes a big hole and a sense of win-now urgency to get there, that he just is not comfortable employing throughout the game. Finally, in some fairness, though Rees put them in bad spots far too often, the Irish’s QB woes contributed to this result a bit more than the playcalling.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2021: 37 Ok. State 35 Notre Dame

D1. No wasted 2d — TD

D2. No wasted 2d — Punt

D3. 2/7, -1 TD (53 yd pass on 3rd)

D4. 2/15 3, Punt

D5. No wasted 2 D — Punt

D6. No wasted 2d — TD

D7. 2/10 -1, 3/11 - MFG

D8. 2/10 1, — TD


D10. 2/10 4, PUNT

D11. 2/9 4 PUNT

D12. No waste — PUNT

D13. No waste — Fumble

D14. No waste — INT

D15. No waste — downs

D16. 2/15 13, — TD

Weird game: the Irish started off red hot (even with TOs), then both went into a shell and started calling poor analytical plays, turning the ball over, etc. The two things to note, however, and they are mixed: One, we’ve seen before, when ND didn’t waste 2nd down, they moved the ball very well and scored almost at will. However, the anti-adjustment after half was both new and worrisome; it was a game where points were needed, and two lost possessions allowed the Pokes to climb back into it. It was the exact opposite of what he seemed to have learned vs. Cincy.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 43.75%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 31.25%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 57%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd / 3rd down: 25% — strangest thing you’ve ever seen. On series that ND didn’t waste the down, they promptly threw three-and-outs, fumbled, intercepted, or lost the ball on downs. Sans those TOs, ND was on track to score on 6 of 9 such possessions.
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 44%
  • 3rd Down % overall: 57%

Through the first two years, a few patterns emerge: In these losses and in games against opponents with winning records, Notre Dame’s 3rd down conversion rate was: 39% (2020), 37 (2021), and 33% (2022). Obviously not all losses are on the offense. But the offense certainly did not give the Irish a fighting chance in most of them either. You’re not winning many games converting sub 40% on 3rd down. The national median among teams with winning records was 40.54% against other teams with winning records. Rees was only close to that one year. It is striking that when Notre Dame did win, their 3rd% was 45% and higher.

It is an offense that must win third down because it lacks explosive plays. It must successfully drive the field and convert several times per possession. All of which makes the incredible amount of wasted possessions a bit disconcerting.

In short, Notre Dame lost games because it lost 3rd down on the field. And it lost 3rd down on the field too often, because it lost 2nd down from the coach’s box.

Up Next: The Disaster of 2022


Through two seasons, how would you appraise his results?

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  • 6%
    Better than I thought
    (17 votes)
  • 47%
    Worse than I thought
    (120 votes)
  • 21%
    About the same
    (54 votes)
  • 15%
    Desperate Hope is a helluva drug, and I’m mainlining it
    (40 votes)
  • 9%
    Uncritical Gumping is a helluva drug, and I’m snorting it
    (24 votes)
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