Offensive and Defensive Coordination

A good deal of the praise and blame for Notre Dame's football performance over the last two years has been focused on Coach Willingham's coordinators: Bill Diedrick (offense) and Kent Baer (defense).

Willingham brought both of them with him from Stanford. Baer had served as his defensive coordinator from 1999 through 2001 and had significantly improved the defense from the dreadful 1998 season that saw Stanford finish 3-8.

Diedrick served as Willingham's offensive coordinator from 1998 through 2001 and produced offenses that were statistically more impressive than those of Willingham's first three years as head coach at Stanford.

The three years that they were both in those positions at Stanford, the Cardinal was 22-13 including a Rose Bowl trip after the 1999 season and a 9-2 regular season in 2001 that included a road win over #2 Oregon. So, Willingham's motivations for continuing them in their current roles are easy to discern.

The results at Notre Dame, however, particularly on offense and particularly last year, have been less than spectacular. Starting with offense, let's try to identify the deficiencies. Here is how Diedrick's performance at Notre Dame compares with his performance at Stanford in several key areas:

Stanford

Points per game: 29.8
Rushing per game: 142.4
Yards per carry: 3.6
Passing yards per game: 280.5
Yards per pass attempt: 7.8
Total yards per game: 422.9

Notre Dame

Points per game: 21.3
Rushing per game: 148.3
Yards per carry: 3.7
Passing yards per game: 176.7
Yards per pass attempt: 5.9
Total yards per game: 325.0

Well, it's not hard to spot where the falloff has occurred. The rushing game at Notre Dame has actually been better than the one he had at Stanford, but just barely. The passing game, however, has been hugely worse – about 100 yards per game and 2 yards per attempt lower. Though Notre Dame's passing game is better than it was in 2001 (Davie's last year) when it averaged a pitiful 5.1 per attempt and 101.5 per game, it still has a lot of room for improvement.

The running game is not quite as good, however, as it was in 2001 when N.D. averaged 3.9 per attempt and 188.5 per game.

However, Holiday at quarterback in 2001 ran for 4.3 per carry and 60.5 per game.

In terms of rushing production by tailbacks, Notre Dame's offense under Diedrick has actually fared a little better than it did in Davie's last year (and recall that year Davie had Julius Jones, Tony Fisher, Terrance Howard and Ryan Grant all playing tailback).

Several factors could account for the decline. Perhaps Notre Dame plays tougher defensive teams than did Stanford. That's probably a bit of the explanation, but almost certainly not the major part of it.

Scoring in the Pac 10 conference is only about 2 points per game above the national norm. Stanford mostly plays tough non-conference opponents and the Cardinal's 2000 schedule was rated harder than N.D.'s and only the 1999 schedule was significantly easier.

The more probable explanation is that Notre Dame's offensive personnel has been ill-suited to the offense that Diedrick wants to run, particularly the passing part of the offense.

Of course, this does not completely excuse the coaching. Probably, the staff could have done a better job of bending the system to fit the personnel rather than vice versa.

But, this year, with an experienced Quinn at quarterback, McKnight, Stovall, Samardzija and Holiday all at wide receiver, a bevy of talented tight ends, an offensive line that returns four of five starters (as opposed to last year's crew that consisted entirely of new starters except for very limited play by Milligan) and running backs who look to be better adapted to the passing game, it wouldn't surprise me to see this year's passing statistics begin to approach Diedrick's Stanford levels.

OK, let's turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball. Here are the levels in several key statistical areas for Baer at Stanford and then at Notre Dame.

Stanford

Points allowed per game: 28.9
Rushing allowed per game: 134.8
Yards allowed per carry: 3.7
Passing yards allowed per game: 266.3
Yards allowed per pass attempt: 7.4
Total yards allowed per game: 401.1

Notre Dame

Points allowed per game: 21.3
Rushing allowed per game: 111.4
Yards allowed per carry: 3.0
Passing yards allowed per game: 208.9
Yards allowed per pass attempt: 6.7
Total yards allowed per game: 320.3

Baer's defenses at Notre Dame have been significantly better than his defenses at Stanford. Even his defense of last year (which was not nearly as good as the 2002 edition) was better statistically than any of his Stanford defenses.

Here again, the logical explanation would seem to be personnel. Baer proved to be a reasonably good defensive coordinator at Stanford judged by any fair measure. His 1999 defense – though still pretty porous – was a significant improvement from the 1998 team.

And, in the key measures of yards per play allowed, the trend was generally one of improvement. In yards per pass allowed, Stanford allowed 8.1 in 1999, 7.2 in 2000 and 7.0 in 2001. In yards per rush allowed, the figures were 3.7 in 1999, 3.9 in 2000 and 3.5 in 2001. While the 1999 defense allowed over 450 yards per game, the 2000 and 2001 defenses gave up about 370 and 380 yards respectively.

So, the evidence is that N.D.'s defenses under Baer are likely to perform about as one would expect given the personnel and the difficulty of the schedule.

So, let's play a little bit of "what if?".

First, in terms of schedule difficulty, this year's shapes up to be somewhere in between the 2002 and 2003 levels of difficulty. Howell rated the 2002 schedule at .724, the 2003 schedule at .783 and projects the 2004 schedule at .751.

Of course, all of these are relatively hard schedules. But, particularly with the Irish now being even with their early opponents in terms of games played, this schedule looks to be a little more sane than the 2003 schedule.

On defense, the personnel situation probably falls somewhere in between the two years. Having Goolsby back is likely to make a large positive impact, and barring a rash of injuries the front seven should be mostly experienced and talented. If a young secondary can play better than last year's squad, figure the defensive performance to come pretty close to the average of 2002 and 2003.

A modest improvement in defensive performance from the 2003 levels is, however, probably only sufficient for a 6-5 or so record unless the offense improves significantly.

Here, however, I think the chances of large improvement are much greater. Both of Diedrick's offenses at Notre Dame have been worse than any offense he produced at Stanford. As I suggested above, however, the personnel for this year looks to be a considerably better fit.

If, for example, the passing game of this year were to come half way up to the level that Diedrick averaged at Stanford, Notre Dame would average about 230 yards per game and about 6.9 per throw. If the rushing game then remains at the average of the last two years, that would give Notre Dame a reasonably balanced attack of about 145 yards on the ground, 230 in the air, for 375 total yards per game.

In the last two years, Notre Dame has gained 375 yards in offense only seven times. In 2003 the Irish gained 385 against Pittsburgh (won 20-14), 397 against B.C. (lost 27-25), 417 against Navy (won 27-24) and 512 against Stanford (won 57-7). In 2002, Notre Dame gained 378 against Stanford (won 31-7), 447 against Air Force (won 21-14) and 478 against Rutgers (won 42-0).

So, in those seven games in which Notre Dame has hit the 375 yard mark, the Irish are 6-1 and the average score is Notre Dame 32, and the opposition 13.

In the 18 games in which Notre Dame has not hit the 375 yard mark, the Irish are 9-9 and the average score is Notre Dame 17, and the opposition 24.

It's pretty obvious, therefore, that a reasonable improvement in the offense would allow Notre Dame to win a lot of football games.

Notice as well that a decent offense helps the defense. Last year, in the six games in which the Irish hit the minimal level of 325 yards in total offense, the defense gave up only 18 points per game. In the other six games, the Irish gave up an average of 34 points per game.

A few concluding scenarios: If Notre Dame's defense plays like it did last year and the offense does not improve, the Irish will probably be a 4-7 or 5-6 team. Perhaps with better special teams play and a few breaks on turnovers, the Irish might be able to squeeze out 6 wins and a minor bowl berth, but that would be about the top end.

The most probable scenario, in my opinion, is that the defense will play at about the average of the last two years and the offense will make up half the difference to Diedrick's historical average (roughly the 375 yards per game scenario discussed above).

If this happens, Notre Dame will probably be an 8-3 or 9-2 team. A team like this would look roughly like last year's Purdue team. That Boilermaker squad averaged about 27 points and 375 yards per game and gave up about 17 points and 300 yards per game and finished 9-3 in the regular season, with two of the losses being extremely close (27-26 to Bowling Green – for those who doubt the importance of not being behind in games played, it was BGSU's second game and PU's opener -- and 16-13 to Ohio State).

The happiest scenario would be for Notre Dame's defense to play at or close to its 2002 level and for the offense to make an even greater leap forward. An Irish team like that would almost certainly be a B.C.S. bowl squad. Michigan of last year, for example, averaged about 35 points per game and 446 yards of offense and gave up under 17 points and 300 yards per game. With a couple of breaks (Michigan and Tennessee being the most critical contests for a team at that level), it's conceivable that such a squad would go into the USC. game knowing that the contest would be one for a berth in the national title game – for both squads.


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