Having endured the worst season in nine years during the 4-8 debacle of 2016, Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are seeking to wipe away the negatives of a campaign that sputtered from the outset. To accomplish that, they need to change some of the numbers that they compiled during last season’s disaster.
No facet of the team was really immune from the carnage, so zeroing on a single area isn’t really a consideration. Listed below are some of the categories that need to see better numbers for the Irish to have any chance of competing for even a respectable bowl this season:
No team can succeed with a floundering or non-existent pass rush, which is what the Irish had in 2016. Compiling just 14 sacks in 12 games is an embarrassingly low number that has to change or Brian Kelly is likely to be gone. Linebacker Nyles Morgan led the team with four sacks and is the only one of the six players who appeared in this category last year who’s returning.
Considering the fact that just three of those 14 sacks came from the defensive line, it’s clear that this department needs to pick up the pace. Right now, raw talent is what Notre Dame has here, with the players to watch being a trio of sophomores: Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. If Kelly & Company are lucky, freshman Darnell Ewell will blossom.
Turnover Margin: -4
The timing of many Irish miscues in 2016 proved to be deadly for the Irish, a season that saw them finish at -4 in the turnover margin category. The first time it caused disaster was against Michigan State, with a muffed punt blowing the game open for the Spartans.
Just one week later, the same issue turned what should have been an easy win over Duke into a 38-35 defeat, with two fumbles and an interception delivering painful blows. While the swampy conditions at North Carolina State could be blamed for the Irish’s three turnovers, a red-zone interception might have made the difference in a 10-3 loss. Turning that number into a positive one is a key for 2017
4th Quarter 3rd Down: 22%
Moving the chains is always important, especially in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Last year, the Irish dropped four games by a field goal or less and seven of the losses were by eight points or less. Looking at the numbers, their lack of success on third down conversions during the fourth quarter or overtime, helps explain a lot.
In the eight losses, Notre Dame managed to pick up a first down in the fourth quarter or beyond just six of 27 times for a miserable 22 percent. In contrast, the four wins saw that percentage above 50 percent. The numbers are especially notable when considering how many close games were lost.
Red-zone Pct: 83%
Just as important as third down conversions are ones in the red zone, with four crushing losses showing that an 83 percent success rate in this category can be a misleading number. The monsoon against North Carolina State might be used as an excuse by some, yet two tries netted zero points, with one drive stopped on downs and the other by an interception.
In close losses to Navy and Virginia Tech, having to settle for a field goal in the respective one-point and three-point defeats is self-explanatory. Taking the field goal instead of a touchdown also was costly in the opening loss in overtime to Texas.
Avg. Punt Return Allowed: 15.04
This category only garners attention when things go right or wrong, with the Irish opponent’s average punt return nearly doubling to 15.04 per try in 2016. Last year, other problems often came at inopportune times, beginning with a trio against Michigan State. A few weeks later, a blocked punt by North Carolina State was returned for the game’s only touchdown, resulting in a 10-3 loss.
In between, Duke’s comeback win over Notre Dame was sparked by a 96-yard kickoff return, while the 2016 finale saw the Irish give up a season-high 262 yards against the USC Trojans. Even in victories over Syracuse and Miami, this department stumbled by allowing a 74-yard punt return that gave the Orangemen momentum entering halftime, while four mistakes in this area nearly blew a 20-point lead against the Hurricanes.
The Ultimate Message for Notre Dame
As can be seen from the numbers above, there can often be a fine line between a good and bad season. Some tweaks are in order, yet getting the most out of the available talent and opportunities should end up making all the difference in the world. Keeping watch on the above numbers may be as important as watching the scoreboard.