Each year before Notre Dame’s bowl game, we develop our above/below the norm chart, which takes the six major statistical categories – rushing, passing and scoring on both sides of the ball – and projects offensive and defensive productivity.
The basis for the analysis is to assess how the two teams – Notre Dame vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 – performed compared to what that opponent typically produced against all its opponents.
For example, Ohio State allowed 169 yards rushing to Western Michigan. Was that a poor performance against the norm of what the Broncos produced against all of their 2015 opponents? (No.)
Notre Dame rushed for 127 yards against Boston College. Was that a good, average or poor performance against what the Eagles typically yielded on the ground? (Above average.)
As is usually the case when an 11-1 team takes on a 10-2 team in a major bowl, the trends point to high numbers for both teams on both sides of the football.
Of the six categories – rushing offense, passing offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense – Ohio State has been very good-to-dominant against its opponents, which, it should be noted, did not include Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern, who were a combined 31-6 as participants in the Big Ten West Division.
In evaluating each performance against each opponent, the team being studied either gets an arrow up for exceeding their opponent’s norm allowed/gained, an arrow down for falling short to their opponent’s norm, or a “tie” when the margin of points/yards is close to the norm.
Ohio State was dominant in five of the six categories, particularly in scoring defense with the Buckeyes beating the norm in 11 out of 12 games. Only Maryland’s 28 points against Ohio State exceeded an opponent’s scoring average for the year, which for the Terrapins was 24.7.
Ohio State dominated most of its opponents in limiting points. Hawaii, which averaged 17.6 points per game, was shutout by the Buckeyes. Northern Illinois, which averaged 33 points per game, managed just 13 against Ohio State. Other lopsided numbers in the scoring defense category included Western Michigan (35.3 avg., 12 points), Penn State (23.7 avg., 10 points), Rutgers (27.1 avg., 7 points), Illinois (22.7 avg., 3 points), Michigan State (32.1 avg., 17 points) and Michigan (30.6 avg., 13 points).
The Buckeyes also faired well in rushing offense, rushing defense and passing defense as it relates to the norm by its opponents. Of Ohio State’s 12 opponents, nine were held below their rushing norm, including Northern Illinois (205.1 avg., 110 yards), Rutgers (169.9 avg., 104 yards), Minnesota (142.9 avg., 33 yards), Illinois (129.2 avg., 20 yards), and Michigan (152.6 avg., 57 yards).
Particularly concerning for Notre Dame is that four of those top rush defense performances by the Buckeyes came in the last five weeks of the season, although Ohio State will be without suspended defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
Ohio State also has done a quality job against passing offenses, holding nine of 12 under their norm. The two “losses” in the category – Minnesota and Michigan – had no choice but to throw it due to either a lopsided score, the inability to run the football or both.
The Buckeyes also are solid in the scoring output category, winning seven, losing two and tying three. Ohio State scored at least 34 points in eight games, including 42 points against a Virginia Tech team allowing 24.2, 49 versus a Maryland team allowing 34.4, 38 against a Penn State team allowing 21.7, 49 versus a Rutgers unit surrendering 34.9, and 42 against a stingy Michigan defense (17.2 avg.).
Only one category is a negative outlier for the Buckeyes, and that is their passing offense, which was inconsistent with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones at quarterback. Ohio State threw for more yards than its opponents normally allowed just three times. Only one passing “win” came in conference play, and that was against Maryland.
Notre Dame’s above/below the norm numbers are not as dominant as Ohio State’s, but none are as poor as the Buckeyes’ passing offense failures, and there’s even a pleasant surprise in one of the major defensive categories.
Only once did Notre Dame allow more points to an opponent than the typical amount scored by that team during the 2015 season, and that was Massachusetts with 27 points (22.2 avg.).
Some of the more impressive scoring defense performances came against Texas (26.4 avg., 3 points), Navy (36.2 avg., 24 points) and Temple (30.8 avg., 20 points). The Irish held Clemson (38.5 avg.) to 22 points, but the torrential rains contributed. All told, the Irish were 7-1-4 against the norm in scoring defense.
Notre Dame’s best category against the norm is its rushing offense with a 9-1-2 mark. The most impressive single-game performance came in the regular-season finale when Stanford, allowing 146.9 yards rushing per game, coughed up 299 yards on the ground to the Irish.
Notre Dame also rushed for 253 yards against a Virginia defense that allowed 156.6 per game, 215 yards against a Georgia Tech defense that allowed 165.0, 214 yards against a USC unit that surrendered 147.1 per game, 168 versus a Temple defense that allowed 126.1, and 175 against Pittsburgh’s unit (126.0). Notre Dame set a school record with 457 yards rushing against a UMass defense that gave up a sieve-like 192.9 yards per game.
Notre Dame was solid against the norm in rushing defense, passing offense and scoring offense. The Irish held 10 of 12 opponents to average or below average rushing yardage. The problem was both “rushing losses” came in November against Wake Forest (105.1 avg., 121 yards) and Boston College (164.6 avg., 214 yards) when a lack of style points hurt the Irish in the College Football Playoff rankings.
As DeShone Kizer began to heat up and improve, Notre Dame won seven and tied two against the norm passing stats. Particularly impressive were the 321 yards passing against Clemson (166.9 avg.), the 299 versus Temple (203.3 avg.), and the 320 against Boston College (171.2 avg.). Even Malik Zaire had a significant “above the norm win” against Texas (233.4 avg., 313 yards passing).
In eight of Notre Dame’s 12 regular-season games, the Irish scored above the norm with the three most impressive performances against Navy (41 points, 21.3 avg.), USC (41 points, 25.9 avg.) and Pittsburgh (42 points, 24.6 avg.).
The one against the norm category where the Irish broke even was passing defense (5 wins, 5 losses, 2 ties). The worst performance statistically came against USC (273.5 avg., 440 yards allowed) while the best easily was against Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, who netted just 84 yards through the air while averaging 288.5 per game.
Other factors to consider: Notre Dame faced 10 of the top 61 rush defenses in the country, yet still finished the regular season 25th in rushing offense per game (215.1) while ranking sixth in average per carry (5.76).
Ohio State played five teams in the bottom 33 nationally in scoring offense, which contributed to the Buckeyes’ 14.0 defensive scoring average. Notre Dame faced seven of the top 50 scoring defenses in the country and still managed to rank 31st in scoring offense at 34.8 points per game.
With Ohio State holding 11 of its 12 opponents below their norm in scoring, plus a combined 18 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie in rushing/passing defense, the Irish would appear to be unlikely to reach their 471.5 yards total offense, nor the nearly 35 points per game. This looks like a 24-to-34 point game for the Irish offense, although none of the last six teams to face the Buckeyes have scored more than 17 points. High-scoring Indiana (36.2 points per game) tallied 27 points against Ohio State.
While Brian VanGorder’s defense certainly has given up big plays and long touchdown drives the last two seasons – with the Fiesta Bowl portending a similar result – his defense has done a solid job of keeping opposing teams at or below their typical scoring output. With an average of 35 points per game, the Buckeyes project in the 28-to-38 point range against VanGorder’s defense.
How much Notre Dame can alter those projections will determine whether the Irish can pull off the upset as a 6 ½-point underdog on New Year’s Day.