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Analytics Matter: Annotating Notre Dame’s 2022 offense under Tommy Rees

Did Notre Dame’s playcalling improve after Brian Kelly departed?

NCAA Football: Boston College at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I had initially intended to get this up last week, but real world has rudely intruded. This is Part Two of a two-parter analyzing Tommy Rees’s offensive performance at Notre Dame.

Part One covered his years under Brian Kelly, where we gave Rees some benefit of the doubt — the scheme could have been coming from the Pomegranate Tyrant. But there were several themes that occurred again and again, and many revolved around a propensity to waste downs with poor analytical 2nd and long running plays, as well as turtling up and wasting followup possessions when the offense encountered adversity.

More often than not, Notre Dame would only hit the switch when it had too. There was a remarkable lack of aggression, both on the field and philosophically.

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.

This week, we’ll tackle the job he did last season under the far more affable, near-peer Marcus Freeman. What changed? What didn’t? What went right? Conversely, what went wrong from a playcalling perspective? Did Notre Dame’s timid risk aversion — and retreating when faced with setbacks — derive from Kelly, or is that just who Tommy Rees is as a playcaller?

Let’s take a look at the games Notre Dame lost in 2022 and see what happened with the offense.

Ohio State 21 Notre Dame 10

D1. 2/8 -2, 3/10 3 — FG

  • This was vintage Rees...unfortunately. Notre Dame starts strong by attacking the weakness of OSU’s defense — it secondary. The Irish move all the way down to the 15 yard line then kill the drive inside the redzone with an analytically poor playcall followed by surrendering on 3rd and 10. They would get a FG, but it set the stage for the rest of the game.

D2. 2/12 0 — Punt

  • Notre Dame imploded here, but Rees wasn’t about to try and dig them out either or help the defense. Began the drive at their own three, but then dove into the LOS three straight times, setting up a punt pinned against the back of their endzone. At best, this kind of series concedes a FG. At worst, you’re setting up one of the most explosive offenses in football, drawing a safety, taking a block / TD.
  • And yes, OSU did make them pay for this kind of surrender-ball and scored a TD four plays later.

D3. No wasted plays — Punt

  • These may as well have been dives at the LOS. Rees called two straight 0-yard dig routes to the tight end, plays that relied on breaking tackles in traffic. It predictably did not work against OSU’s team speed.

D4. No wasted plays — TD

  • The highlight of the day for Rees, honestly. 10-play drive that wasted no downs, mixed run and pass, was aggressive, put the offense in makable conversions all drive, and put pressure on OSU’s defense. As we saw in 2020-2021, when Rees does this, the offense can be quite effective. The issue is that he doesn’t do it very often.

D5. No wasted plays — Punt

  • Just a failure of the team to convert on a short 3rd.

D6. 2/9, 0 — Punt

  • This was probably a coaching decision. ND decided to play it safe and go in the locker room with a 10-7 lead and not risk it.


D6. 3/10 -1 (Penalty), 2/11 NG — Punt

  • In many ways, this series reminds you of the Clemson game the previous year, as ND comes out of the locker room and practically does everything that did not work in the first half: Dives at the LOS in bad down-and-distance, setting the offense up for 3rd and long YOLO plays, etc. The anti-adjustment was troubling, particularly given OSU’s inability to stop the pass in the first half. Frustrating as hell.

D7. 2/9 2, 2/11 0 — Punt

  • Back to everything that doesn’t work and the worst of 2020-2021. Notre Dame gets in a close game and Rees is simply incapable of not playing Old Man, Bad Analytic football. He sets Buchner up for a tough 3rd down on the first set of downs. But, as usually happens, you can’t get away with that multiple times on a drive, and the Irish lost possession.

Which, again, Ohio State punished.

D8. 2/18 NG — Punt

  • Down 14-10 now, do the Irish show urgency? Yes, they do...until they cross midfield, take a penalty, and then decide to run right into the damned line of scrimmage in plus-territory on 2nd and 18. The Irish would have to punt at the OSU 47.

D9. No wasted downs — Punt

  • Notre Dame is now in crisis mode, down 11 with five minutes to play. Unfortunately that’s also the worst time to try and pass, since OSU knew ND needed two scores. They just sat back in a zone, kept everything in front of them, made tackles, iced the game.

Tommy Rees is seemingly incapable of handling success. Having had two successful drives in the first half (and a third that should have been converted), and doing so by not wasting series, he turns around, does the exact opposite in the second half...and never learns from it. It was such an abrupt night-and-day “coaching adjustment”, with such woefully bad playcalling after the break, that you would question point-shaving were this in the NFL. And, predictably, when the offense faced the barest setback whatsoever, Tommy was gonna’ dive a RB straight into the pile. It’s almost automatic at this point.

It was at this point that I began to wonder if 2020-2021 was any of Brian Kelly’s doing after all..because this game was called in the same way as those contests.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 66%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 22%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 0%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd / 3rd down: 50%
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 9%
  • 3rd Down % overall: 23%
NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall 26 Notre Dame 21

D1. 2/10 1, 2/10 -1 — Punt

  • After diving into the line on 2nd and 10, the only question was would it be a 3rd down YOLO pass or another dive and punt. It was a QB keeper. ND got away with one YOLO pass earlier, but not twice. Because that just is not how winning football works.

D2. 2/10 0, 2/10 2 — Downs.

  • And he turned around did it again. Twice. In two series, Rees has now called 2/10 runs on four sets of downs. He got away with two passes to keep the drive alive, but you simply cannot sustain drives doing that. After a long completion, when ND got into that position again, it was forced to give the ball away in both of its first two drives.

D3. 2/10 0 — Punt

  • This was absolutely detestable. ND has the ball at midfield, Rees calls three straight runs and then meekly punts. We have seen this play out again and again, that every single time ND plays surrender-ball, the opponent punishes them for it when they get the ball back.
  • And Marshall did. 10 plays later, 6-0 Herd.

D4. No wasted plays — Int.

  • As we saw occasionally in 2020-2021, it often takes Rees’ back to the wall to show some urgency. This was such a case. And there were times Rees called the smart analytical play, but QBing simply let them down. This was one such instance. ND was moving the ball very aggressively, and very well, inside the MU 30.

D5. 2/12, 3 — Punt

  • This began very aggressively, with Rees throwing buried deep inside the 15. However, once ND took a penalty, Rees turtled on 2nd down and then YOLO’d a long 3rd attempt. QB play let the Irish down the previous possession, but on 3 of 4 drives, playcalling has now asked a new QB to complete passes of 10, 10, 15, 10, and 9 yards on third down. It’s like Bill O’Brien on steroids; and there’s a reason the Irish are scoreless.

D6. No wasted plays — TD

  • As in Drive 4, Notre Dame wastes no 2nd down plays. And as we have seen over the last three years, when that happens, Notre Dame usually gets points out of it (if the QB isn’t shooting himself in the dingus). Surely he has to have spotted this pattern by now, right? 7-6 Irish.


D7. 2/9 15 — Downs

  • No apparently, he’s not spotted that trend yet. Because ND went to the ole’ dive up the gut on 2nd and 9...and it worked once. It didn’t work again though, because the Football Gods punish you for that stuff. ND loses possession.
  • Which, of course, Marshall then immediately exploited for points...yet another trend Rees has to have spotted by now. 12-7 Herd

D8. 2/9 2 — TD

  • This one began as the last did, with ND wasting a down and putting Buchner in a bad spot. However, ND was bailed out by a penalty, and became much smarter over the next 7plays, not wasting a single one of them, and getting into the endzone. It was a tale of two teams; once ND got a second chance, it didn’t put itself in a bad position again with wasted 2D calls. Good job adjusting in-drive, Coach. 15-12 ND

D9. 2/10 2, 2/10 0 — Punt

  • Almost as frustrating as D3. Notre Dame picks up where it left off being aggressive in the passing game, converting manageable thirds. But then it gets the ball in Marshall territory, and starts doing exactly what does not and has not worked in three years: 2nd and long dives. He adjusted the other direction, and they’re forced to punt at the MU 43.
  • Which Marshall of course punishes them for. 19-15 Marshall.

D10. 2/10 7 — Int

  • The gods punish this almost every single time. Even if you have a decent pickup bucking analytics, it catches up to you later in the drive. And it did on the very next play with a pick six: 26-15 Marshall

D11. No wasted plays — Int

  • Hair on fire, Rees has to go to the well with what was working. And ND was driving pretty easily too. Then Buchner went down with a shoulder injury, and Pyne was inserted into a late must-win. Threw a pick on his second pass.

D12. No wasted plays — TD

  • Defense holds, gets the ball back and once against easily drives the field for a score. Pyne’s INT didn’t hurt on the scoreboard, but did waste some clock for a team that is not built for explosive plays.

If you notice this trend by now, on five drives that ND did not waste 2nd down mocking the mathematical deities, it was easily driving the field for scores. In 3 of 5 they did score, and were on their way to another when Buchner went down. If you’re Rees, you now have two games to see that this team simply cannot win 2nd down in the ground game. Interestingly, Marshall was actually playing for long 2nd down runs. They stopped it 80% of the time too. Opponents had picked up on his tendencies, so why hadn’t the Irish staff?

And, for the second straight game, Notre Dame scored zero points when wasting second downs and their bad third down conversions got worse.

I repeat the mantra that drove me nuts during the O’Brien tenure: YOLO is not an offensive scheme.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 58%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 33%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 0%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd / 3rd down: 80% (and marching towards 100).
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 27%
  • 3rd Down % overall: 31%
NCAA Football: Stanford at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford 16 Notre Dame 14

D1. No waste — Punt

  • Drew Pyne was simply awful this game.

D2. 2/10 0 — Punt

D3. 2/18 14 punt

  • This was a drive where Notre Dame began at the Stanford 32 yard line, worked the ball down the the 7 yard line, then walked away with no points after a penalty. Following the penalty, as we have seen, Rees went super conservative and killed second down with a keeper at the 18 yard line. That set up a 4th down, which was stoned and it would be the difference in the game.

D4. 2/10 3 — Punt

D5. No wasted downs — Punt

  • Just bad quarterbacking again, against one of the bottom 30 secondaries in the country.

D6. No wasted downs — Fumble

ND was moving the ball well, and was in plus-territory when Pyne gave it up on a fumble.


D7. No wasted downs — Punt

Recurrent issue of the day: when ND was moving the ball well, Pyne just didn’t get it done on manageable conversions. (3rd and 2, here).

D8. No wasted downs — TD

The previous four drives, Rees had avoided those long 2nd down drive-killers, but was let down by Pyne. Finally, Pyne was accurate and when coupled with not wasting plays, the offense easily scored. Highlight of the day. 13-7 Stanford.

D9. No wasted downs — TD

For an encore, Rees did it again! 14-13 Notre Dame.

D10. 2/9 11 — Fumble

  • Notre Dame got away with one here on 2nd down, trailing 16-14. But once again in plus-territory, Drew Pyne would give it away. That disrupted a fairly decent second half he had been having.

D11. No wasted downs — Clock

  • Ran out of time.

As we saw a few times in 2020-2021, quarterbacking was an issue. Even when Rees would call the mathematically favorable play, some games the guys under center just didn’t have it. This was one case, where Pyne was remarkably inaccurate in the first half, and in the second turned it over too much. Still, that second offensive series, where Notre Dame went conservative after the penalty wound up costing them. And in Rees’s career, that has usually been the case: Teams made the Irish pay for meekness.

For the second time in three losses, ND would finish below 10% on conversions after wasting second down. And for the game, Notre Dame was absolutely scoreless after doing so. And, for the third game, ND would not score at all after wasting 2nd down on a drive: 29 possessions, zero points.

  • % of total drives with wasted analytical plays: 36%
  • % total successful drives (I am including missed FG in here as a success, since the offense did well enough to get in scoring range): 18%
  • % successful drives when “wasting” 2nd / 3rd down: 0%
  • % successful drives when not wasting 2nd / 3rd down: 50%
  • 3rd Down % after wasting 2nd — 9%
  • 3rd Down % overall: 25%

We’re going to skip over the USC game — it was much as we have seen in these three: bad analytics on 50%+ of possessions, and too often Pyne was not able to get it done in the remaining 50% of possessions. Mistake followed by score, etc.

So, let’s see what we took our takeaways were from Rees’s 2022 regular season on the sideline, his third as an offensive coordinator.

What changed from the previous two seasons? At times, there was some smarter playcalling down the stretch. Sure, Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t lighting up Georgia or anything, but they did hit 30+ in four straight against bad defenses — that ironically began following this loss to another bad defense. But, as we saw with O’Brien, anyone with talent can make an offense look good against scrubs.

The games where Xs and Os mattered, where possessions were at a premium? Unfortunately, that didn’t really change. It was very much the same thing as we saw the prior years: a lack of aggression until Notre Dame didn’t have any choice but to do so; very efficient offense when he wasn’t wasting a down; spotty QB play that screwed that Irish, even when he would put them in position; bad 3rd down conversions because on far too many attempts the offense was placed in simply unmanageable long third downs.

In short, it wasn’t Brian Kelly that was responsible for the foibles of 2020-2021. Tommy Rees was.

And many people have tried to downplay the offensive struggles by saying that ND lacks talent, that it will be better with Alabama’s roster. Who knows with the second part of that equation. But ss to the first part, it is simply incorrect.

Pyne was a 4-star prospect, the No. 7 QB in his class, a guy that Alabama recruited, and was Tommy Rees’s big pickup for 2018. He just wasn’t developed. The guy he replaced that was also remarkably average? Tyler Buchner? He was the No. 6 QB of the 2019 class, another Tommy Rees pickup, another guy Alabama recruited, another 4-star prospect, and yet another one that wasn’t developed. Jack Coan? The No. 13 passer in his class of 2017, another 4-star...and benched.

In the last five seasons, the average 247 score for ND recruits has been 90.5, and they have finished between 9th and 19th — in a pack with Oregon, Washington, USC, Tennessee, Penn State. In two seasons, they drew better classes than LSU. In two others, their player average was better than Ohio State. And while ND’s admissions may make it unable to often select the best 2-3 players on the board, they’re able to get top 5-10 talent at the position.

Talent is not the problem. It’s never been the problem.

At some moment you have to point to lack of development. Since Chip Long left, Rees simply has not gotten it done with three guys — two of whom he recruited and developed. It is either that, or he is remarkably bad at spotting talent under center. Or both. And that propensity for locating busts, or lack of development, is a red flag — whether people wish to believe it or not.

Look, I’m going to give him a chance. But I’m not optimistic that we see a different Tommy Rees than we have in three previous years. Not only is the offense not explosive, it essentially concedes 50-60% of all possessions with brutal analytical calls. Even if he is handed Alabama’s playbook and told “get to work,” he’s still responsible for the type and kind of call to make with each series and on each down.

I’m not comfortable conceding half of Bama’s possessions, are you?

But, perhaps the most troubling in all this is that football is a game of guessing tendencies. Coordinators play chess against one another to maneuver their team in the most favorable position. That requires learning learning from your own tendencies as much as guessing the opponent’s. And Rees does not show any evidence of doing that, no matter how many times it has gotten his team burned. He is very predictable and it straight up lost games. (Hell, Marshall straight up guesssed “run” on every second and long, and nailed it damn near every time.)

He is going to have to improve. He is going to have to learn from his mistakes. There is now a 40-game body of work where there is not one iota of demonstrable improvement from Game 1 to Game 40. And that should concern you. The lack of development should concern you. The propensity to absolutely surrender drives at the first sign of trouble should concern you.

So, we can want for more and better — we can wish for someone that better fits the roster presently in place — but Rees just is who he is. As a result, the Tide will be who they are for better and worse...perhaps even far worse, in some cases.

“Hope for the best” is our saying around these parts, and right now based solely on the evidence and his body of work alone, hope is what I have to go on.
He can do it; we’ve seen it before. The biggest question is whether he can do it enough.

I hope so.