Points and Yards

Raw yardage is the rawest of raw statistics in football. Given a choice, of course, a team would generally be better off gaining more yardage than its opponent. When, for example, in 2002, USC out-gained ND by over 400 yards. That signaled "blowout."

But, of course, it's perfectly possible to win a game with a substantial deficit in total yardage. That same year, Pittsburgh out-gained ND by over 200 yards but still won the game 14-6.

Its points, of course, that determine games, not yards. To use an analogy, think of yardage as if it's the raw ore that's being mined and points are the mineral that's being extracted. More raw ore will usually produce more mineral, but so will extracting a purer grade of ore.

Some teams are more productive than others in terms of raw yardage, but some are more efficient in turning those yards into points. And conversely some teams are less stingy in terms of giving up total yardage but better at not allowing teams to turn those yards into points.

It was Phil Steele's College Preview magazine where I first noticed that a potential measure of a team's efficiency was to divide total yardage by total points to come up with a yards per point ratio. In other words, how many yards, on average, does a team have to travel to score a point and conversely how many yards does a team give up on average in surrendering a point?

Obviously on offense a lower number is better and on defense a higher number is better.

The average college team this year scores and allows 27 points per game and gains and gives up 383.5 yards per game. So, an average figure for yards per point this year is 14.2.

So how does N.D. stack up over the last four years?

2005

Yards gained: 475.0
Points scored: 34.0
Yards per point scored: 14.0

Yards allowed: 399.2
Points allowed: 23.0
Yards per point allowed: 17.4

2004

Yards gained: 345.5
Points scored: 24.1
Yards per point scored: 14.3

Yards allowed: 369.4
Points allowed: 24.1
Yards per point allowed: 15.3

2003

Yards gained: 336.3
> Points scored: 20.2
Yards per point scored: 16.6

Yards allowed: 340.2
Points allowed: 26.2
Yards per point scored: 13.0

2002

Yards gained: 313.5
Points scored: 22.3
Yards per point scored: 14.1

Yards allowed: 300.3
Points allowed: 16.7
Yards per point allowed: 18.0

So what do the figures show? On offense, ND's offense is vastly more productive and slightly more efficient that any of its immediate predecessors. The 14.0 figure shows that it is a bit more efficient than average, but the 475 yards per game puts it 130 yards per game ahead of the best of the offenses of the last four years and almost 100 yards better than the average team this year. In fact, at the current clip it would prove to be similar to the last Holtz offense which in 1996 averaged 37 points and 463 yards per game.

Now on defense, while the total yardage figures have been identified as a source of concern, the good news is that ND forces other teams to be inefficient by traveling over 17 yards per point. In that respect, the current defense is the best since the 2002 team, though that team held other squads to a much lower total yardage figure.

Now, in real terms, what accounts for these differences? Here are some factors that I've been able to identify.

Turnovers

A big key is winning the turnover battle. A team that wins the turnover battle will generally play on a shorter field and force the opposition to play on a longer field. This year ND has thus far been + 6 in the turnover battle, including forcing some killer turnovers on teams after they had driven deep into ND territory. Washington and Michigan each twice turned the ball over under these circumstances.

Special Teams

Another important key to winning these battles is special teams. In particular, in 2003 and 2004 ND had very weak special teams. Thus in 2003, ND actually gained more yardage on offense than it did in 2002 but scored fewer points and its defensive efficiency rating was below average as well. Things improved slightly in 2004 on this front, but ND's declining pass defense meant that ND started to give up huge chunks of yardage in the air. Add that together with poor kick and punt coverage, as we had in 2003 and 2004, and we had the recipe for disaster (shown in ND's collective 11-13 record those two years). Improved play on that front this year has meant that ND has been a better position to survive big plays by the opposing offenses.

Running Game

Teams that can run the ball are generally more efficient on offense and teams that can stop the run force other teams to be inefficient. This is because the risk of a turnover is much lower on a running play (only about 1/3 the risk of an interception on a passing play) and the risk of a zero gain is much less. ND's run defense has generally been good over the last several years and has continued to good this year (allowing 3.6 per carry and 104.8 per game). This year ND's running game has been considerably improved gaining 4.0 per carry and 179.8 per game. Not surprisingly, the one game ND lost was where the opposition (MSU) had the decidedly more effective rushing attack.

Pass Completion Percentage and Third Down Conversions

Closely linked are pass completion percentage and third down conversions. Third down conversions are also linked to the running game because a running game that can reliably pick up 3rd and 1 or 2 is essential to keeping drives alive. On offense, ND has struggled miserably in pass completion percentage, with the best being last year's performance at about 53%. This year, however, ND (Quinn) is completing almost 62% of its passes while holding opponents to just barely over 50%. The results are evident on third down. ND converts 43% and allows only 26%.

Consider what an improvement this is from prior years. In 2004 ND converted and allowed 37% (allowing 58% pass completions). In 2003 converted and allowed 31%. In 2002, ND barely won the third down battle 32% to 30%.

Now, of course, just because things are moving in the right direction does not mean that there isn't any room for improvement. Consider USC's figures from this year and last.

2005

Yards gained: 615.7
Points scored: 59.3
Yards per point scored: 10.4

Yards allowed: 341.7
Points allowed: 15.7
Yards per point allowed: 21.8

2004

Yards gained: 449.1
Points scored: 38.2
Yards per point scored: 11.8

Yards allowed: 279.3
Points allowed: 13.0
Yards per point allowed: 21.5

Well, that's a wee bit daunting, wouldn't you say? Not only does USC gain a lot of yards and not give up too many, the Trojans force teams to work about twice as hard for their points. Put another way, if USC has its average offensive performance this year, and has its average performance with regard to defensive efficiency, it would take almost 1300 yards of offense to win.

Now, before I make this sound like "Mission Impossible" let me assure you it's not. USC has a trick. Each year under Carroll, they have been + 16 or better on turnovers. A team like ND could beat USC by winning the turnover battle and playing well in other phases of the game.


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