The autopsy from Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to No. 12 Oklahoma Saturday afternoon returned with no surprises. Cause of death: Turnovers.
Bennett Jackson's pick-six against Purdue is one of only three turnovers created by Notre Dame's defense this season.
The Irish lost the turnover battle 3-0. All three takeaways were first-half interceptions thrown by senior quarterback Tommy Rees. All three led to touchdowns for the Sooners. Two of them came in the first three minutes of the game and gave Oklahoma a 14-0 lead Notre Dame could not surmount. And while Rees will spend his week dodging digital rotten tomatoes, the latter half of that 3-0 line in the stat column should be just as concerning for the Irish.
Notre Dame finished in the black in turnover margin a season ago. The focus for rookie quarterback Everett Golson was to protect the football at all costs. That he did. Opposing teams stole the ball only 15 times in 2012, only a dozen FBS teams did a better job of keeping possession. So far, Rees and the Irish offense are keeping pace with that number. It’s the defense that is lagging behind.
Through five games the Irish have coughed up the ball six times — five Rees interceptions and a fumble by junior running back Amir Carlisle. That puts them on pace to finish the year with 15.6 turnovers, nearly identical numbers from a year ago. The defense, however, has created only three turnovers in its first five games (A fourth came via a fumbled punt against Temple). At that rate they’ll complete the season with eight takeaways, a major step back compared to the 24 they created a year ago.
“It’s frustrating that we’re in the right position sometimes and we may not capitalize on that opportunity,” said senior cornerback Bennett Jackson, who has one of the team’s three interceptions.
Only eight teams in the country created fewer turnovers in September, and that group has a combined record of 11-22.
To Notre Dame’s credit, the defense has made the most of the few sudden-change plays it’s mustered thus far. Jackson’s interception against Purdue and a leaping grab by defensive end Stephon Tuitt against Michigan both went for touchdowns. Safety Matthias Farley flipped the momentum of a 17-13 win over Michigan State when he picked off an ill-advised trick play attempt late in the third quarter. Notre Dame’s offense eventually converted that play into a go-ahead score against the Spartans.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said there are no plans to add any emphasis to taking the ball away from opponents in practice moving forward.
“I think we continue to do the same things that we have always had in terms of preaching what we do defensively and going after the football and stripping it,” he said Sunday afternoon. “…I think more importantly for us, it's on the offensive side of the ball, taking care of the football.”
Jackson, who led the secondary a year ago with four interceptions, said the dip in September was more about missed chances than a change in the way the Irish play defense.
“We’ve just gotta execute. When your opportunity is in front of you, you gotta make the most of it,” he said. “There were several opportunities this year where the ball hit guys right in the hands and we didn’t catch it. That’s a huge game change that we need to work as a defense to improve.”
Add this to the lengthy list of reasons why Notre Dame’s defense misses All-American linebacker Manti Te’o more than it imagined. Te’o intercepted seven passes a year ago and helped to create several others by forcing bad throws from quarterbacks under duress.
The 2012 group had 13 takeaways at the end of September. Those lamenting the return of “Turnover Tommy” this month should perhaps change their tune to a requiem for Turnover Te’o.