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January 2, 2014

Next step: forcing turnovers

Four seasons into the Brian Kelly era, it’s clear the Irish have learned how to win football games with 37 conquests in 52 games for a .711 winning percentage, the best since Lou Holtz led the Irish to a 34-12-1 mark (.734) from 1993-96.

In order for Kelly’s winning percentage to rise, however, the Irish will have to improve an area that has been hit-and-miss since the start of the regime in 2010.

Bob Diaco’s defense was among the most stable and consistent in the country the last four seasons. Only three teams held opponents to less than 21 points per game in each of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons - Alabama, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

The Irish took a step back defensively in ’13. Yet they still allowed just 22.4 points per game, which ranks ahead of notable programs such as Missouri, LSU, Washington, Kansas State, UCLA and national-title aspirant Auburn.

Yet one of the shortcomings of Diaco’s defenses was its inability to create turnovers on a consistent basis. Ninety-nine out of 123 FBS programs forced more turnovers in 2013 than the Irish, which needed four interceptions in the Pinstripe Bowl to reach the 17 turnovers created this season.

The high-water mark for turnovers under Diaco came in 2010 when the Irish picked off 18 passes (seven by safety Harrison Smith) and recovered seven fumbles for a total of 25 takeaways

Notre Dame’s second most productive season under Diaco forcing turnovers came, not surprisingly, during the national championship-game run in 2012 when the Irish had 16 interceptions and seven fumbles recovered for a total of 23.

In addition to the low number of turnovers caused this season, the Irish managed just 14 takeaways in 2011 (eight interceptions, six fumbles recovered).

In four years under Diaco, the Irish created 79 turnovers, or an average of 19.7 per season. Using the 2013 season as a barometer, 77 teams created more turnovers than the Irish averaged from 2010-13.

The most problematic number for the Irish defense over the last four seasons was fumbles caused. How many a defense recovers often requires a bit of good fortune - a fortuitous bounce or roll. But the inability to cause fumbles is an indication of a defense that a) is not an overly aggressive unit and b) one that doesn’t create fumbles with physicality.

Notre Dame forced just 58 fumbles in four seasons (14.5 per year) and recovered just 24 (6.0 per season). Again, using 2013 as a barometer, only 13 teams in the country had fewer than six fumbles recovered this season, which was Notre Dame’s average over the last four campaigns.

Teams that bring pressure are more inclined to create quarterback fumbles and/or interceptions, which goes a long way toward explaining why Diaco’s defense didn’t take the football away on a consistent basis. Diaco - often by decree from Kelly, who hasn’t been able to put together a high-powered offense - was a bend-but-don’t-break, keep-the-football-in-front-of-you coordinator during his time with the Irish.

Notre Dame’s offense did an outstanding job changing the negative turnover numbers from 2010-11. In 2010, the Irish had 24 turnovers, and in 2011, an astonishing 29 (10 of which came in the first two games).

Over the past two seasons, the Irish have had just 15 and 17 turnovers respectively. Over 26 games, that’s an average of just 1.2 per game. And yet during that time, Notre Dame’s turnover margin was just plus-eight -- including plus-zero in 2013 -- despite the offense’s improved protection of the football.

Due to Notre Dame’s turnover issues in the passing game in 2010, 2011 and 2013 - an average of 15.3 interceptions per those three seasons - plus the defense’s inability to consistently create turnovers, the turnover margin in the four-year Kelly regime is minus-six, including the unsightly minus-15 in 2011.

There are several reasons why Kelly tabbed Brian VanGorder as his replacement for Diaco at defensive coordinator, one of which may have long-term implications if/when Kelly heads to the NFL. In the short-term, VanGorder’s more aggressive approach should create more turnovers.

During VanGorder’s ultra-successful four-year run at Georgia (2001-04) when the Bulldogs never gave up more than 3.2 yards per carry in a season and allowed just 16.2 points per game, his defenses averaged 24.5 turnovers and 12 fumbles recovered per season. The fewest number of fumbles recovered (nine in 2001) was more than any single season under Diaco at Notre Dame.

Of course, VanGorder was coaching Georgia/SEC personnel with the Bulldogs before spending the bulk of the last decade in the NFL. How it translates to Notre Dame with its personnel remains to be seen.

But for the Irish to go to the next level defensively, the next step is to create turnovers, which Diaco’s defenses simply were not designed to do.


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