5 Games last year where Notre Dame held a lead in the fourth quarter but ended up losing. Head coach Brian Kelly’s troops were ahead at one point in the final 15 minutes versus Texas (35-31), Duke (35-28), Stanford (10-9), Navy (24-21) and Virginia Tech (31-21) before ending up with the defeat. The Fighting Irish also were tied 3-3 at North Carolina State in the fourth quarter before losing on a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
This is not about “being a play or two away.” It’s about finishing, finishing, finishing. That can be as much mental as it is physical.
4 Special teams touchdowns yielded by Notre Dame last year that were crucial in the outcome of three losses. A kickoff return for a score by Duke and a blocked punt return for a touchdown by North Carolina State were game-changing plays that propelled defeat. USC also returned a punt and kick for a score to gain separation from the Irish. Overall, Notre Dame permitted five special teams touchdowns, unofficially a single season school record.
We can point to at least three or four games almost every year that are often determined by a crucial moment(s) on special teams. Will they go Notre Dame’s way more this time under new special teams coordinator Brian Polian? He compared his job to physicians taking the Hippocratic oath in that his first job is to “do no harm.” In other words, special teams don’t have to win the games — but they must not help lose them.
3 Quarterback sacks recorded by the Fighting Irish defensive line last season — the fewest among any of the 65 Power 5 conference schools in the country. Just one year earlier, the line recorded 16 of Notre Dame’s 25 sacks. The two who did combine for the three sacks in 2016, two by Jarron Jones and one by Isaac Rochell, have graduated.
Overall, Notre Dame totaled 14 quarterback sacks last season to rank 118th among 128 FBS teams. The lone Power 5 team with less was Michigan State with 11, two of them coming in the 36-28 win at Notre Dame. This Irish data is expected to improve (there is no place to go but up, anyway) under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, whose Wake Forest unit last year finished 11th with 41 sacks.
2 Seasons in a row Notre Dame still will be looking to post at least 10 victories — which would be a first since 1991-93. Kelly achieved it all three seasons at Cincinnati (2007-09), and came close with the Irish in 2012 (12-1) 2013 (9-4). Last year was projected to be the breakthrough after a 10-3 finish in 2015 and then a preseason Associated Press No. 10 ranking in 2016.
Eight of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2017 have won at least 10 games in back-to-back years since 1993. The exceptions are Miami (Ohio), North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Navy.
1 Game above .500 Notre Dame has been in the four seasons from 2013-16 (20-19) against opponents from the Power 5 conferences. Just when one might have thought the Fighting Irish were on the threshold of returning to consistent prominence after a 12-1 result in 2012, the overall outcome of the last four campaigns has been sobering.