Notre Dame Ball-Security System Reaping Benefits
Through the first half of the college football season that has Notre Dame entering its bye week 5-1 and No. 8 in the country, probably its most notable team stat is ranking No. 2 nationally in turnover margin.
The plus-1.67 mark is tied with San Diego State, behind only San Jose State’s plus-2.00.
• Notre Dame has committed only four turnovers while generating 14. The school record for fewest turnovers in a season — when including bowl games as well — is 10 by the 1993 unit that finished 11-1 and No. 2 in the country.
In 2000, Notre Dame had only eight turnovers during the regular season, which tied the NCAA single-season record, but back then bowl games were not included in the final team or individual stats. Thus, when you include the 41-9 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State in which the Irish had three turnovers, that total reached 11 in 12 games.
• Only four of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have committed fewer turnovers: Appalachian State and Oregon State with two apiece, and San Diego State and Utah each with three. (Alabama also has four.)
• Meanwhile, the 14 turnover Notre Dame has forced so far already matches the total it produced in a full season under head coach Brian Kelly in 2011, 2015 and 2016.
The most forced in Kelly’s 10 seasons was 25 in his debut campaign in 2010 (18 interceptions and seven fumbles). Notre Dame currently is on pace to reach at least 30 for the first time since 2002, when under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham the team produced 33 (21 interceptions and 12 fumbles).
• Notre Dame’s running backs have not lost a fumble in their last 1,242 carries — dating back to the 19-16 victory versus Boston College on Nov. 21, 2015. That leads the nation currently, ahead of No. 2 Northwestern’s mark of 1,152.
These are encouraging data points before Notre Dame faces Michigan on Oct. 26 at Ann Arbor.
That's because when it comes to turnover margin, the Wolverines are tied for 76th at minus-0.17, and their 13 turnovers prior to facing No. 7 Penn State this Saturday are second most among the top 96 in this category, behind only Florida’s 14.
Of course, USC ranked No. 123 in turnover margin when it faced Notre Dame last weekend, and ended up with zero.
What was crucial was Notre Dame also had zero. Just one in this game — especially in the fourth quarter when the Trojans had pulled to within 23-20 before the Irish embarked on a 75-yard, 14-play touchdown march that took 6:54 off the clock — could have meant defeat for the Irish.
While senior quarterback Ian Book absorbs his share of criticism about not “pushing the ball more” downfield or playing too cautiously — including from third-year offensive coordinator Chip Long at times — there is a flip side to this. The way he and the running backs protect the football so well plays a huge factor in why the team has produced a 17-2 record the past year-and-a-half.
“I get the ball every play, and Coach Long says it all the time: smart with the ball and no penalties, and that's going to win the game,” Book said. “I take a lot of pride in that. Secure the ball at all times, get it in the right guys' hands — especially when we had that long drive (versus USC) where we needed to take off some time, and it's all about ball security.”
We bring this up because this is yet another data point that becomes even more amazing when compared to the context from decades ago.
Notre Dame’s 1977 national champions, with Joe Montana at quarterback, amazingly committed 40 turnovers (25 fumbles, 15 interceptions) during the 11-1 campaign. Could you imagine the angst and vitriol if that were to occur today with 3.3 turnovers per contest?
Of course, it “balanced out” well when that 1977 Irish defense, led by end Ross Browner, linebacker Bob Golic and cornerback Luther Bradley, produced an astounding 58 turnovers (32 interceptions and 26 fumbles), six of them in the 38-10 Cotton Bowl win versus No. 1 Texas to clinch the title.
Every era has its own story or statistical anomalies, but what does not change in football is the value of ball security.