The momentum from the Hawaii Bowl certainly carried over for the Irish offense. Head coach Charlie Weis couldn't have written a better script for the first game of 2009 as Notre Dame amassed better than 500 yards of offense while shutting out a Nevada squad that averaged over 37 points per game in 2008.
It was the first defensive shutout of Weis' tenure and only the third time Nevada head coach Chris Ault failed to register a score in 25 years of coaching experience.
Similar to the Hawaii game, the Irish offensive play-calling was night and day different from the 2008 regular season. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and company rode an effective ground game and dynamic air attack to the tune of 35 points. The defense pitched in relentless quarterback pressure and excellent third down efficiency.
In short, the Irish played nearly flawless offensive football and dominated almost every facet of the game in a clean, zero turnover, and nearly penalty-free game. For the first contest of the season, such disciplined play is highly encouraging.
Weis' offense put on a clinic, recording arguably the most efficient and well-executed performance of his tenure. On the day only seven plays (out of 61) were for a loss, creating favorable down and distances and allowing Notre Dame to sustain numerous drives.
The Irish offense recorded 20 first downs (eight rushing, 11 passing, one via penalty), gained 510 yards at 8.4 yards per play, converted 50 percent of third down attempts, and held the ball for better than seven minutes more than Nevada.
Seven big plays (runs of more than 15 yards, passes of more than 20) accounted for almost 55 percent of the total yardage: two runs for 34 yards (17 yards per attempt) and five passes for 244 yards (48.8 yards per attempt). Even without these big gains the offense averaged 4.3 yards per play, 3.7 yards per rush attempt, and 5.9 yards per pass attempt.
In stark contrast to 2007 and 2008, the ground game delivered. Weis' play-calling heavily favored the run as 67.2 percent of plays were rushing attempts that yielded nearly 35 percent of the total yardage.
The natural side effect was an extremely potent passing attack. Passes were called on less than 33 percent of plays but accounted for over 65 percent of the offense.
About the only negative was facing unfavorable distances (four or more yards) on almost 67 percent of third down attempts.
At least partially, the Irish running game questions have been answered.
Rather methodically, Notre Dame attempted 41 runs for 178 yards (4.3 yards per carry) against a team that returned eight defensive starters from a very stout 2008 run defense (88.6 yards per game, 3.1 yards per carry).
Only the 3.7 yards per attempt without big plays detract from an otherwise impressive stat line.
Armando Allen and Jonas Gray did most of the work. Allen carried 15 times for 78 yards (4.8 yards per attempt) and a touchdown while Gray chipped in nine carries for 51 yards (5.6 yards per attempt). Both Allen and Gray yielded averages that are more than respectable.
Similar to the bowl game against Hawaii, Clausen had another nearly flawless outing.
Clausen completed 83.3 percent of his pass attempts (15 of 18) for 315 yards and 4 touchdowns. This translates to 17.5 yards per attempt and 21 yards per completion, both gaudy indicators of the big play potential in the passing game.
Most of the damage was done by sophomore Michael Floyd who caught four balls for 189 yards and three touchdowns (47.3 yards per reception), but junior Golden Tate also chipped in with three catches for 59 yards (19.7 yards per reception) and tight end Kyle Rudolph added another receiving touchdown to go along with four receptions for 29 yards (7.3 yards per reception).
Additionally, the Irish offensive line surrendered zero sacks through 20 passing attempts.
If the Irish running game questions have been partially answered, the defense's ability to stop the run is still a concern.
Notre Dame allowed only 307 yards to a potent 2008 Nevada offense (508.5 yards per game) with eight returning starters. The yardage came nearly evenly on the ground (153 yards rushing) and through the air (154 yards passing) with eight first downs rushing and six passing.
Nevada averaged 5.5 yards per play using almost a 50/50 split of runs and passes recording four big runs for 68 yards (17 yards per attempt) and two big passes for 47 yards (23.5 yards per attempt). Without the big plays the Wolfpack offense still managed 4.6 yards per rushing attempt (subtracting sacks), but only 4.3 yards per passing attempt and 3.8 yards per play.
Despite allowing 6.3 yards per play on first down, the Irish defense did a good job with third down efficiency forcing Nevada into third and five or more yards nearly 91 percent of the time. These unfavorable third down distances and relentless pressure from co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's blitz-heavy defense led to a Wolfpack third down efficiency of only 18.2 percent.
The low yardage and yard per play totals above fail to underscore a rather poor rush defense.
Nevada averaged 5.3 yards per carry in the game, a number that increases to 6.4 when the two sacks of Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick are subtracted. Perhaps more disheartening, the Irish allowed 7.3 yards per rushing attempt on first down.
Running back Vai Taua churned out 117 yards on only 18 carries (6.3 yards per attempt) while Kaepernick gained 39 yards on ten carries (3.9 yards per carry) but averaged 7.5 yards per carry when sacks are subtracted.
If the Irish run defense was less than stellar, the pass defense was pretty special.
Notre Dame held Kaepernick and fellow Nevada quarterback Tyler Lantrip to fewer than 155 yards passing and less than a 49 percent completion percentage through 27 passing attempts. Much of this was due to a relentless pass rush that forced several hurried throws and recorded two sacks (one per 13.5 pass attempts).
The long ball was also fairly ineffective as Nevada managed only two passes for more than 20 yards (23 and 24 yards) and finished the day with only 4.3 yards per pass attempt and 9.7 yards per completion.
The Irish special teams picked up right where they left off in 2008 with excellent kickoff and punt coverage.
Nevada managed only 17.6 yards per kickoff return and didn't elect to return a punt, mostly due to smothering coverage by the Irish gunners. Punter Eric Maust averaged slightly over 40 yards per punt and kicker freshman kicker Nick Tausch averaged 58.5 yards per kickoff.
The return game was less exciting for the Irish as freshman Theo Riddick returned the only Wolfpack kickoff 23 yards while Tate lost two yards on one punt return attempt and wide receiver John Goodman gained 24 on another.
While there is certainly room for improvement, the progress in execution and effectiveness of the running game has to be encouraging for Irish fans.
The offensive line didn't play with overwhelming toughness, but there were far fewer missed blocks than in the recent past. The result was a much more efficient rushing attack (only four negative running plays out of 40). Perhaps even more encouraging was the lack of zone-stretch plays and numerous multiple tight end sets (39 of 61 plays---approximately 64 percent---featured two or three tight ends).
This enabled an effective and potent passing attack and controlled the clock for most of the contest. Even without such an effective outing from Clausen, it is highly likely the Irish would have won, albeit with a bit less margin. The same could not be said of several contests in 2008.
In other words, the Irish offense didn't have to spread the field or throw the ball with great frequency to be effective in the passing game. If these two trends can continue, it bodes well for the future.
The defense, however, answered fewer questions.
Another year of experience in---and more dedication to---Tenuta's scheme has certainly benefited the Irish defense. The pressure applied Saturday was consistent and effective, even if the coverage was too soft at times and poor tackling evident on several plays.
But while the Irish fielded an efficient pass defense, it is difficult to overlook the inability to stop the run. Nevada figures to be a potent running team, but 7.3 yards per rushing attempt on first down is unacceptable no matter how you spin it. Ditto 5.3 yards per attempt for the game. If the Irish offense hadn't controlled the clock and built an early lead, this contest could have been much closer.
More physicality along the offensive front and better run defense are needed for this promising squad to fully reach their potential.
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- Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina
- Statistically Speaking: Notre Dame vs. USC
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