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Notre Dame 22, Vanderbilt 17: Conflicting thoughts on a close game

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A deep dive into the numbers frightens and confuses me.

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

Five Factors

FIVE FACTORS Vanderbilt Notre Dame
FIVE FACTORS Vanderbilt Notre Dame
Plays 70 74
Total Yards 422 380
Yards Per Play 6 5.1
Rushing Attempts 26 48
Rushing Yards 106 245
Rushing YPP 4.1 5.1
Passing Attempts 44 26
Passing Yards 316 135
Passing YPP 7.2 5.2
Rushing Success Rate 42.30% 45.80%
Passing Success Rate 43.20% 42.30%
Success Rate 42.90% 44.60%
Avg. Field Position 22.7 24.9
PP40 2.43 3.67
Turnovers 3 0

A weird thing happened when I dove into the play-by-play for yesterday’s game. Often, when I do this, my impressions of the game don’t really change all that much. I thought we played well, and reading through the play-by-play backs that up. I thought we played poorly, and reading through the play-by-play only confirms that.

With yesterday’s 22-17 loss to Notre Dame, though, a dive through the play-by-play only makes me even more confused. I watched the game and eyeballed the box score, and my initial impression was that Vanderbilt played well enough to win and probably should have won if not for a few ill-timed mistakes. After reviewing all of this, though, I have a different impression of yesterday’s game.

Here’s why: I don’t always do this, but I broke down the game by quarter. In the first quarter, Vanderbilt ran 10 plays, averaged 4.3 yards per play, and had a 30 percent success rate. In the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt ran 19 plays, averaged 6.2 yards per play, and had a 36.8 percent success rate.

In the second and third quarters, Vanderbilt ran 41 plays, averaged 6.4 yards per play, and had a 46.3 percent success rate.

In the first quarter, Notre Dame ran 24 plays, averaged 6.7 yards per play, and had a 58.3 percent success rate. In the fourth quarter, the Irish ran 19 plays, averaged 5.7 yards per play, and had a 57.9 percent success rate. In between, the Irish ran 31 plays, averaged 3.6 yards per play, and had a 25.8 percent success rate.

Now, I’ll give away what I’m hinting at. On Vanderbilt’s first drive of the fourth quarter, with the score 22-10, the Commodores ran 9 plays with a 55.6 percent success rate and averaged 7.8 yards per play. On its second drive, trailing 22-17, Vanderbilt ran nine plays with an 11.1 percent success rate and averaged 4 yards per play.

Notre Dame scored to go ahead 10-0 on its final play of the first quarter, and Vanderbilt scored to cut the lead to 16-10 on its final play of the third quarter. This was a very different game when less than one score separated the two teams: Notre Dame effectively dominated the game. When Notre Dame had a one-score lead, the Irish averaged 6.3 yards per play and had a 58 percent success rate. When Vanderbilt was trailing by a single score, the Commodores averaged 4.6 yards per play and had a 25 percent success rate.

How you view yesterday’s game depends a lot on how you want to spin it. To put a positive spin on it, Vanderbilt didn’t pack things up after getting dominated in the first quarter and played well for two and a half quarters to keep things within striking distance, but just made too many mistakes. But if you want to spin things negatively, Notre Dame’s dominance whenever the game was in doubt suggests that the Irish simply did just enough to win and weren’t interested in doing more than they absolutely had to. (If that didn’t also describe Notre Dame’s first two games of the season, wins over Michigan and Ball State in which Notre Dame got a lead early and then essentially screwed around the rest of the way, I probably wouldn’t put too much stock on it. But at the very least, I’m going to wait and see what we do against South Carolina on Saturday before I start making any further pronouncements that This Is A Good Football Team.)

Passing

PASSING Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
PASSING Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Kyle Shurmur 26 43 60.50% 327 1 1 1 9 318 43.20% 7.2

Receiving

RECEIVING Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
RECEIVING Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Kalija Lipscomb 18 11 89 0 61.10% 4.9 8.1 38.90%
Jared Pinkney 5 5 113 1 100.00% 22.6 22.6 100.00%
C.J. Bolar 5 2 43 0 40.00% 8.6 21.5 40.00%
Chris Pierce 4 1 20 0 25.00% 5 20 25.00%
Donaven Tennyson 2 1 20 0 50.00% 10 20 50.00%
Sam Dobbs 2 2 19 0 100.00% 9.5 9.5 50.00%
Khari Blasingame 2 1 2 0 50.00% 1 2 0.00%
Cam Johnson 1 1 13 0 100.00% 13 13 100.00%
Trey Ellis 1 1 6 0 100.00% 6 6 100.00%
Ke'Shawn Vaughn 1 1 2 0 100.00% 2 2 0.00%
Joejuan Williams (?) 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0 N/A 0.00%

First off, yes, that’s Joejuan Williams on the last line of the receiving chart, and yes, somebody probably made a mistake in the box score. No, I don’t know who was actually targeted on that pass. (If you want to go watch the film and find out, it was the third play of the final drive of the first half, right after the big pass play to Pinkney.)

Jared Pinkney had a hell of a day, but Kalija Lipscomb’s stat line shows you why leaning heavily on those two is going to be problematic when you’re facing a good defense. Notre Dame’s Julian Love did a pretty good job containing Lipscomb; some opponents will have one cornerback whom you absolutely don’t want to throw at, but basically nobody’s going to have two cornerbacks like that. But nobody else has really stepped up so far this season to take some of the pressure off Lipscomb.

(Also, Donaven Tennyson’s stat line shows the limits of “success rate.” Tennyson caught a 20-yard pass on 1st-and-10 at the Notre Dame 21, and if that’s all you knew about the play, you’d call it a success! Of course, that is NOT all that you know about that play.)

Rushing

RUSHING Att Yds YPA TD Success Rate
RUSHING Att Yds YPA TD Success Rate
Khari Blasingame 13 49 3.8 0 30.80%
Ke'Shawn Vaughn 10 54 5.4 1 50.00%
Jamauri Wakefield 2 9 4.5 0 50.00%
Cam Johnson 1 -6 -6 0 0.00%

The general consensus seems to be that Ke’Shawn Vaughn is clearly a superior back to Khari Blasingame, because that’s what your eyeballs tell you, and Vanderbilt’s coaching staff should be giving the lion’s share of carries to Vaughn and limit Blasingame to short-yardage situations.

Saturday was the first time that there was a real criticism of the way the coaching staff used the two. Vaughn starred on Vanderbilt’s two touchdown drives in the second half, getting three carries in the red zone at the end of the third quarter and nearly breaking another one on the touchdown drive in the fourth (though it got called back due to a holding penalty.) So it was a bit odd that on Vanderbilt’s final drive of the game, all four running plays went to Blasingame, and those netted a total of ten yards. Perhaps the coaches were overly concerned about avoiding negative plays, or perhaps they were trying to make sure Notre Dame didn’t get the ball back by having Blasingame chew 3-4 yards at a time, and anyway it’s not why Vanderbilt lost the game (Shurmur going 1-for-5 passing on the final drive would be a better place to point fingers, if you’re in a finger-pointing mood), but we’ve established that Vaughn is much more of a home run threat.

What’s Next

Vanderbilt will return to Nashville on Saturday to face the South Carolina Gamecocks, who have beaten them nine years in a row. Please don’t make it ten.