There certainly was plenty to grumble about.
There’s the 95th-rated red-zone touchdown percentage defense.
Remember the astonishing stat of 28 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more?
Only 30 teams in the country surrendered more plays of 50 yards-plus than Notre Dame.
Seventy-seven teams had more sacks than the Irish. Only 13 teams had fewer turnovers forced.
But it wasn’t all bad. In fact, a new statistic created by Irish Illustrated called “scoring drive response” (SDR) showed a promising trend to add to the impressive number of three-and-outs and the solid No. 34 ranking on third down.
When Notre Dame scored in 2015, which was frequently at a Brian Kelly-era-high 34.2 points per game, Brian VanGorder’s defense was at its best on the opposing team’s ensuing drive.
Nearly three times to one, the Irish defense held the opponent to no points or less points than the Notre Dame offense scored on the previous drive. The defense was superb in such situations against Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC, Temple, Wake Forest and Boston College, which is at least partially why the Irish won seven out of those eight games and reached 10 victories for just the fourth time in the last 22 seasons.
In fact, in those eight games, the opponent was held to no points or less than the Irish scored in the previous drive 34 out of 39 times.
Of course, all stats are not created equal, or rather, some stats overshadow the positive influence of others. The Irish couldn’t stop anybody in the red zone as evidenced by the numerous lengthy touchdown drives allowed – an average of more than two per game over a 13-game season.
The scoring drive response does not account for the defensive performance in the opening drive of a game or after the Irish failed to score. Back-to-back scoring drives allowed to open the Clemson game put the Irish in a hole that they had to dig out of all night in a driving rainstorm.
Additionally, Notre Dame’s scoring drive response on defense was at its absolute worst in the last regular-season game of the season at Stanford and against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, seven of the 18 scoring drives allowed following an Irish score came in the last two games of the season.
Pretty important games for a defensive letdown.
But it’s a level of effectiveness that VanGorder would love to be able to build upon after some of his most talented personnel walked out the door following the loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1.
Before going any further, let’s establish the criteria for a SDR.
• A drive resulting in a punt following an Irish score is a “win” for the defense.
• Allowing a field goal after scoring a touchdown is “half a win.”
• Allowing a field goal after a field goal is a loss.
• Any touchdown allowed following an Irish score is a loss.
• End-of-the-half or end-of-the-game possessions without enough time to respond to the score are excluded.
The Irish defense was a perfect 6-0 against Texas with a Longhorn punt following each of Notre Dame’s scores. The inability to prevent long touchdown drives, however, nearly cost the Irish in Week Two against Virginia as quarterback Matt Johns engineered two 75-yard scoring marches (compared to three defensive wins).
At the end of the Georgia Tech game, we tend to recall a) the 13-play, 79-yard scoring drive completed with 48 seconds remaining and the ensuing touchdown – following an onside kick – culminating with 22 seconds left. But the Irish defense was a solid 4-1 in SDR with three punts and a turnover on downs following Notre Dame scores.
One of the defense’s worst SDR games was against UMass when the Minutemen responded with three 75-yard-plus touchdown drives following Irish points. Notre Dame’s defense was 5-3 in SDR as the offense/special teams exploded for 62 points versus UMass.
From Game 5 versus Clemson through Game 11 against Boston College, the defense’s SDR was virtually impeccable.
• After Clemson took a 14-0 lead, the Irish had two wins and a half a win (a FG following a TD) against the Tigers.
• Navy had a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive following an Irish touchdown. But the defense had four wins and half a win, including two punts forced, a missed field goal and an interception.
• The Irish defense was a solid 6-1 in SDR against USC, including two fourth-quarter interceptions following a touchdown and a field goal. The lone spoiler was the 75-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Juju Smith-Schuster late in the second quarter.
• Temple’s 14-play, 78-yard touchdown drive pulled the Owls even midway through the fourth quarter, and then took the lead on a field goal with 4:45 remaining. But the Irish defense had a perfect 4-0 SDR, including three punts and a KeiVarae Russell interception late.
• A pair of SDR losses to Pittsburgh made the game closer on the scoreboard than it really was. Notre Dame’s defense was 4-2 for the game, including three straight wins to open as the Irish built a 21-3 lead.
• The offense sputtered in the home finale against Wake Forest, but the defense once again had a perfect 4-0 SDR with an interception (for a touchdown), a punt and two turnovers on downs.
• We remember Boston College’s 80-yard score and a nine-play, 86-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. But the Irish posted a 3-1 SDR mark for the game as Notre Dame built a 19-3 lead.
The defense couldn’t continue its string of SDR success when it mattered most. With a potential playoff berth on the line, Stanford had five touchdown drives of 74 yards or more. If you count the Cardinal’s game-winning field goal drive when the Irish needed to pitch one last “shutout inning,” the defense had a poor 2-5 SDR.
The Irish didn’t record a full win in the SDR category against Ohio State, managing just half a win for a field goal, which at that point was all the Buckeyes needed (three in the fourth quarter) to secure the Fiesta Bowl victory.
Some might consider the creation of the scoring drive response category as grasping for straws. The fact is we went into it expecting the numbers to be as disastrous as most of the other statistics affiliated with the ’15 Irish defense. The results after tabulating each game/scoring drive were a pleasant surprise.
Ironically, it’s the Irish offense that must improve its scoring drive response. (Note: Offensive SDR is done the same way as the defense. How did the offense respond to a defensive score allowed?)
In only five of 13 games did Notre Dame’s offense have a “winning” SDR mark. The offense’s best SDR performance came against Pittsburgh (3-0). The worst was in the Fiesta Bowl when the Irish failed to respond to an Ohio State score six out of eight times.
DeShone Kizer-to-Will Fuller heroics often overshadowed the offense’s SDR mark of 20 wins and 24 losses. It likely won’t be able to count on such pyrotechnics, at least not at such a high frequency, in 2016.