Analytics to Give You a Rocket Brain
DISCLAIMER: The database we use to produce all of our content utilizes ESPN Play-by-Play (PBP) Data. For some reason, ESPN doesn’t collect all of the PBP data for some games every year. Last season, Toledo was one of those teams with spotty data and so we do not have a complete dataset for them during an already shortened season. As a result, please take any of our charts and insights derived from them with a massive grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism.
After a tense Week 1 victory, Notre Dame will look to earn a less stressful win against the Toledo Rockets. While Toledo is not a big name, they’re coming off of a solid 4-2 season in the MAC and have more talent than some of the doormat Bowling Green and Ball State teams that Notre Dame has faced in the recent past. The Irish are certainly heavy favorites in this one, but there’s a reason the spread is only 17 points and not 38.5 like in years past. For context, USC is a 17 point favorite over Stanford this weekend.
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With Blake Fisher now set to miss eight weeks, the confidence in the Irish running attack has never been more in question. Toledo posted the 11th strongest rush defense in the country last season by EPA/rush allowed and ranked 21st in PFF Run Defense Grade, although it was a six game MAC-only season that did not pit them against the type of athletes they’ll face in South Bend. Notre Dame produced a PFF Run-Blocking grade of 54.2 last weekend, tied for 99th out of 130 teams and far lower than last season when they finished 2nd nationally. They were facing a Power 5 opponent on the road and replacing four NFL linemen, so it wasn’t too surprising considering Florida State does have some high level talent on their defensive line. But if that doesn’t start to improve it officially becomes a major concern, especially if Tommy Rees and Brian Kelly insist on being a balanced team.
Fortunately while the run blocking left a lot to be desired last weekend the pass blocking was quite good. The team earned a 70.6 PFF Grade, ranking 28th in the country. Of the five sacks the team conceded, four were determined to be mainly caused by Coan holding onto the ball too long; while one was charged to Michael Carmody getting beat out of his stance. The Irish are likely not going to pass for 0.51 EPA/Dropback each week (that’s Joe Burrow at LSU type production) but they have an opportunity here against a defense that conceded 0.27 EPA/pass last season. Toledo did have the 31st highest PFF Coverage Grade last season, so the EPA number may be more reflective of the missing data than their true ability. Regardless, with the way Jack Coan was able to push the ball last weekend in one on one against the athletes Florida State has, there’s no reason he can’t be even more aggressive against a team where the Irish will almost always have athleticism mismatches across the field.
Going back to the sacks, after one game Coan’s sack rate is 6% higher than it was when he was at Wisconsin but his EPA/Play is also 3 times higher. It is way too early to draw any conclusions, but if it continues it’s possible Coan is being coached to stay in the pocket longer and not be afraid to take sacks in order to try and push the ball further downfield. Something to keep an eye on.
Avery Davis is notably missing from the box score because he did not receive a target last weekend. While the passing game plan certainly worked and not every receiver is going to be heavily involved every week, it would be great to see Davis more incorporated in this week’s plan. He was a versatile threat last season, averaging 0.40 EPA/target, had a PFF Grade over 80 when targeted at all levels of the field, and led the Irish in snaps on Sunday in Tallahassee. He’s also a captain, and we’d like to see the ball thrown his way a few times.
REMINDER: Take all of these stats with a massive grain of salt
The Rockets had an incredibly strong passing offense in 2020 led by Eli Peters until his knee injury thrust Carter Bradley into the starting role. He did not play as well as our stats indicate, but he did produce an 80.9 PFF Passing Grade and is plenty capable as a thrower. Bradley had an aDOT of 11.3, indicating he likes to push the ball downfield more than most quarterbacks. Toledo also had 39.3% Play Action rate with him under center, and he was at his best when targeting 10-19 Yards downfield. Bradley completed 61.3% of his passes for an average of 11.3 yards at that depth, leading to a 91.4 PFF Grade. If Freeman and the Irish defense want to cheat and stuff the run, Bradley has shown the ability to burn defenses on Play Action passes over the top.
The Rocket running game is anchored by workhorse running back Bryant Koback. Koback received 123 carries in a six game 2020 season, and is the preseason All-MAC running back for this season. Despite all this, he averaged a flat 0.00 EPA/rush last season, and the team’s rushing attack was even worse at -0.04 EPA/rush. The missing data does slightly skew the narrative though, as Koback had a 78.0 PFF Rushing Grade last year and the Toledo Offensive Line had the 47th highest Run Block Grade. The Irish can probably get away with playing those light fronts they were often stuck in last weekend against this rushing attack, but we’d like to see the Irish at least be ready to play heavier if the Rockets are able to run the ball with success. This is especially true now that Notre Dame has lost Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon, and Paul Moala to season ending injuries. The depleted linebacker corps needs to get used to its new situation, and this will hopefully be a good tune up game to work out what went wrong against Florida State.
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Jack’s Prediction: While Toledo has some talented players and this may not be the wire to wire blowout some are expecting, I’m going to take Notre Dame to win and cover the spread. After last year’s COVID season, the Rockets have not faced a Power 5 opponent since August 31, 2019. They’re not used to facing the level of competition they’re going to see on Saturday, and will likely have no answer for the Kyle Hamilton/Michael Mayer type athletic freaks that almost never exist in the MAC. The Irish may not win by six touchdowns and get their third stringers in, but I like them to win by three or four scores.
Cooper’s Prediction: I think Toledo may present a tougher test than many people expect. They didn’t face great competition last year but produced great results defensively both against the run and the pass. Offensively, they throw and run the ball well but lean into the pass more with a 57% Pass Rate. They pair their run game with heavy Play-Action usage at 40% and are facing a Notre Dame Defense that is still figuring out their identity. I don’t think the game will be close and I expect Notre Dame to win, but I do think a quietly good Toledo team will cover the spread.