If there is one statistic that best summarizes why Notre Dame finished the regular season only 8-4, it’s turnovers. With our research dating back to the 2-8 season in 1956, this is the first time where we’ve seen an Irish team have twice as many turnovers (26) as its opponent (13).
Consequently, among 120 FBS schools, Notre Dame’s minus-1.08 turnover ratio per game ranks 116th in the country.
While it’s easy to point to the total the Irish committed in their four losses — 16, or an average of four per game — even more revealing is the low number generated by the defense the entire year.
Our research shows that the 13 turnovers forced by Notre Dame this year (five fumbles and eight interceptions) are probably the fewest in school history — and that’s in 12 games. Most of the Irish football seasons had 9-, 10- or 11-game regular seasons. In fact, the 13 forced this year are the fewest by a long shot.
• From 2000-10, the fewest turnovers Notre Dame forced were 19 by the 2009 and 2006 teams of head coach Charlie Weis. The most it forced during that time was 33 in 2002, when the defense propelled an 8-0 start, the only time in the last 18 seasons the Irish won their first four games.
• From 1990-99, the fewest turnovers generated by Notre Dame were 16 by Lou Holtz’s 1990 team that finished the regular season 9-2.
• From 1980-89, the fewest turnovers Notre Dame forced were 21 in Holtz’s 5-6 debut campaign in 1986.
• From 1964-80, the Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine eras, the Irish often forced 30 and 40 turnovers in an era where protecting the ball seemed more precarious. For example, Notre Dame’s 1977 national champions had 39 turnovers — but forced 52 (not including six more in the 38-10 Cotton Bowl versus No. 1 Texas).
Could you imagine how if message boards were prevalent in 1977 the vitriol that would have emanated from the Irish “lack of discipline” while committing so many turnovers?
What also stands out about this year is Notre Dame recorded only eight interceptions in 378 attempts, or one per 47.2 tries. Based on our research, that is the second fewest in Irish history, behind only the seven by Holtz’s 6-5-1 team in 1994 (in 335 attempts).
Two other Notre Dame teams had only eight interceptions to tie this year’s unit for the second lowest. One was the 2-8 team in 1960, but that was in 10 games, not 12 like this year — and the opposition attempted only 111 passes all year. That’s an average of 11.1 passes per game, which many teams today average in a quarter.
The other was, surprisingly, Ara Parseghian’s final team in 1974, during a 9-2 regular season. However, in the 13-11 victory versus 11-0 Alabama in the Orange Bowl, Notre Dame picked off two late passes, one by John Dubenetzky and the other by Reggie Barnett, to clinch the victory. So if you included bowl games back then as you do now, the total would be 10.
Interceptions by linebackers have almost become non-existent in recent years. Irish linebackers totaled one interception in all of 2008, one in 2009, two in 2010, and it would have been zero this season had Darius Fleming not grabbed an errant pass forced by a Harrison Smith blitz last Saturday at Stanford in the 28-14 loss.
In the seven seasons from 2005-11, Irish linebackers have combined for nine interceptions — the same as the career record held by John Pergine (1965-67) for Notre Dame linebackers.
Current defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s unit finished the regular season a respectable 30th in scoring defense with a 20.92 average per game, close to last year’s 20.23 average that placed them 23rd nationally. The overall defense so far has improved from 50th last year (357.25 yards per game) to 33rd this season (349.25).
However, last year’s Irish defense generated 25 turnovers in 13 contests, while this year’s had only 13 in 12 so far. While there is immense lamentation about the 96- and 80-yard fumble returns by South Florida and USC, respectively, it’s overlooked that neither the Bulls nor the Trojans committed a turnover against the Irish. Just one at the right time could have switched the game’s momentum.
It’s not a coincidence that top 10-ranked teams usually place near the top in turnover margin. No. 1 LSU is also No. 1 in turnover margin with plus-1.58 per game, while No. 3 Oklahoma State is No. 2 with a plus-1.45 average. No. 2 Alabama is tied for a relatively low 26th at plus-0.50, but that’s still a good figure.
Once you fall to 116th in this category, as Notre Dame did, it’s a wonder you even finished 8-4. Among the final 20 teams that finished 101-120 in turnover margin, only the Irish and 7-5 SMU have finished with winning records (6-5 Utah State also could if it wins at New Mexico State this week).
In tight victories against Pitt (15-12), Wake Forest (24-17) and Boston College (16-14), the Irish defense forced only one turnover — with that coming on a fumble by Wake Forest inside Notre Dame’s 10-yard line. Just that one proved to be a huge difference, while gaining none against the Panthers and Eagles made it a nail-biter to the finish.
The Notre Dame defense has made notable strides the past couple of years, especially on the recruiting circuit. However, it must generate much more turnovers if it is to reach the level everyone aspires toward.