So where the heck are we? After six games last season the Irish were sitting at a nightmarish 1-5, having slipped into the win column by beating a UCLA Bruin team that was down to their third-string QB in a game where Notre Dame was out-gained 282 yards to 140. But we weren't really worried about style points at that juncture. In 2008 after six games the Fighting Irish sit at a much improved 4-2, but with the bitter aftertaste of a blown opportunity in Chapel Hill sting on their tongues. The Irish faithful are generally ecstatic over the dramatic improvement they have seen from this football team, most particularly in the passing game as the result of a maturing QB, an influx of talented young receivers, and quantum leaps in the pass blocking by the offensive line. But I wanted to try to get a more concrete or objective look at how much this team has improved in the past year, and the midway point of the season seemed like a logical time to do it.
What I have done is compiled some statistics comparing the performance of the 2008 Fighting Irish through six games with the performance of the 2007 Fighting Irish through the first six games of last season. It's a little arbitrary. Why not compare to the full season stats from 2007? Or just the stats from the common opponents from each season? I guess I like the symmetry of looking at the stats from the midpoint of each season, which allows us to look at the progress over the course of a full year, rather than the progress over just a half-season which we would have if we compared end-of-year 2007 stats against mid-year 2008 stats. Of course there are three types of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. So take the following with a grain of salt, and know that I know they can be interpreted a lot of ways. Nonetheless, I still found it a very useful and somewhat surprising exercise.
Set out below are two charts. The first compares some key stats for the Notre Dame offense through six games in 2007 and through six games in 2008. Blue numbers in the differentials columns represent a positive trend from 2007 to 2008. Red numbers indicate a negative trend.
The second chart does the same thing looking at the performance of the Notre Dame defense. Blue is a good trend for the Irish, red numbers are a negative trend.
|Offensive category ||2007 ||2008 ||Diff. ||% Change |
|First Downs / Gm. ||12.3 ||25.5 ||13.2 ||+107% |
|Rush Yds. / Gm. ||33 ||101.2 ||68.2 ||+207% |
|Rush Yds. / Att. ||1 ||3.2 ||2.2 ||+220% |
|Pass Yd. / Gm. ||153 ||271.8 ||118.8 ||+77.6% |
|Completion % ||61.4 % ||61.6% ||0.2% ||n/a |
|Pass Yds / Att. ||5.2 ||7.4 ||2.2 ||+42.3% |
|Pass Yds / Comp. ||8.5 ||12.1 ||3.6 ||+42.4% |
|Total Yds / Gm. ||186 ||373 ||187 ||+100.5% |
|Off. Plays / Gm. ||62 ||67.6 ||5.6 ||+9.03% |
|Yds / Off. Play ||2.97 ||5.5 ||2.53 ||+85.2% |
|Turnovers ||12 ||14 ||2 ||+16.7% |
|3rd Dn. Conv. % ||24.7% ||40% ||15.3% ||n/a |
|Penalty Yds / Gm. ||63 ||45.3 ||-17.7 ||-28% |
|Points / Gm. ||11 ||25.5 ||14.5 ||+132% |
|Sacks Allowed ||32 ||9 ||-23 ||-71.9% |
|Defensive category ||2007 ||2008 ||Diff. ||% Change |
|Opp. 1st Downs /Gm. ||21.6 ||20.6 ||1 ||-4.6% |
|Opp. Rush Yds. / Gm. ||190 ||136.3 ||-53.7 ||-28.3% |
|Opp. Rush Yds. / Att. ||4.1 ||4.4 ||0.3 ||+6.8% |
|Opp. Pass Yds. / Gm. ||154 ||231.3 ||77.3 ||+50.2% |
|Opp. Completion % ||49% ||54.8% ||5.8% ||n/a |
|Opp. Pass Yds / Att. ||5.7 ||6.1 ||0.4 ||+7.0% |
|Opp. Pass Yds/ Comp. ||11.7 ||11.1 ||-0.6 ||-5.1% |
|Opp. Total Yds / Gm. ||343 ||367 ||24 ||+7.0% |
|Opp. Off. Plays / Gm. ||73 ||69 ||-4 ||-5.5% |
|Opp. Yds / Off. Play ||4.69 ||5.3 ||+0.61 ||+13% |
|Turnovers Forced ||16 ||14 ||-2 ||-12.5% |
|Opp. 3rd Dn Conv % ||43.9% ||37% ||-6.9% ||n/a |
|Points Allowed ||24 ||20.7 ||-3.3 ||-13.8% |
|Sacks ||11 ||7 ||-4 ||-36.4% |
Analysis. The offensive numbers pretty well speak for themselves. Clearly the improved offensive line play has had a HUGE impact. Sacks allowed are down almost 72%. Yards per rush is still underwhelming, but it's 220% better than this point in 2007. Any offensive stat you look at is way, way up over last year. Better O-line play, a maturing, healthy QB, talented young receivers, this is what we all hoped we would see and the offense has been fun to watch. Maybe Charlie Weis can coach a little bit, eh?
The surprises come on the defensive side of the ball. Very much a mixed bag. Many of the trends can probably be explained by the fact that all six games this year have been competitive, with the Irish playing ahead much of the time. This has forced opponents to pass much more in 2008 than in 2007 when teams were way up on ND early and running the ball to grind out the clock much of the time. Other stats are not so easily explained. With the tremendous improvements in the Irish offense, and the resultant improvements in average field position, you would hope to see more improvement in points allowed. Allowing just a field goal less per game is pretty modest improvement, especially since the caliber of opponent in 2008 is way down from the first half of 2007. A fairly dramatic drop-off in sack production (36%) is really surprising since teams are passing more often this year, and since Notre Dame hired blitz guru Jon Tenuta in the off-season to help the Irish bring more pressure. The opponent's average yards per play stat is also trending the wrong way, perhaps again because of the higher % of passes. But 5.3 yards per play means a first down every two plays. That's not going to get the defense off the field.
Conclusion. The offense in 2008 is MUCH better than in 2007 (Duh!), but the defense is not significantly better, and if you factor in the quality of competition in 2008 versus 2007, I would argue that the defense is not as good this season as it was last year (so far). What does it all mean? It means our offense is going to have to win games. Our defense is not good enough to win a grind-it-out ball control game. We are going to allow points to be scored, so our offense will have to be wide open and aggressive trying to get lots of points on the board. That will be fun to watch, but it also means we're likely to see more turnovers due to the more aggressive offensive game plan.