Notre Dame has been BEATEN by 1 team this year: USC. Yes, yes, we were beaten soundly by them, at home, with a crappy first-time-out-pumped-in-music-effort (that was much better this past Saturday). And yes, yes, that was a sound loss to a USC team that seemed really down coming into that game. But note that that same team took Top 5 Stanford to Triple OT. So maybe USC isn’t as down as we all assumed?
But the point stands. We’ve been beaten by a single team: USC. Notre Dame has defeated Notre Dame twice: when the opponent across the line happened to be USF and UM. Yeah, yeah, it doesn’t show up that way in the record books. I get it, those both count as losses. But in 2007 Notre Dame was beaten by EVERYONE, and occassionally stole a game from a team beating itself (UCLA). The next 2 years ND would get beaten by having a hot-and-cold offense and a mediocre defense. This year ND has been beaten in one game, and has given away two others through weird turnovers and bad special teams play.
Well, there’s a difference between 5-3 with 3 losses to teams that beat you and 5-3 with 2 self-inflicted wounds. It’s not easy to see at 5-3, but there IS a difference. Because you can see potential in production that doesn’t consistently lead to points. You can see the team’s ability to move the ball, and slow down the opposition. You can glimpse what we can/will be. When other teams are HANDLING you week in and week out, you can’t see that. When all losses are ‘the other team is flat out better’, it’s tough to measure progress. It’s just tough to see it. But in a season where we’ve outplayed every team but 1, I am seeing progress. It’s not pretty. It’s inconsistent as hell. And the Turnovers/Special Teams stuff has to be fixed, obviously. But even if ND squeaks out those first 2 games by 1 point wins each game, and everything else stays the same, we’re having an entirely different conversation. ND would be Top 15, and everyone would be singing praises despite the USC setback. Well, we’re 2 plays away from that being the case, and this team isn’t all that different from that scenario.
Football Outsiders captures a lot of this dynamic in their rankings based on production rather than just final scores (note that the stats are also adjusted to reflect the ‘true’ values, but I’ll leave that to you guys to read through on their site if desired.) This helps us understand where that progress is happening when things like TOs and STs cloud the view. And right now FO has 5-3 Notre Dame ranked 9th. 9th! 10th in Offense and 10th in Defense. Before you scoff and say ‘they have no idea what they’re talking about’, here’s their Top 10:
Bama, BSU, LSU, Oregon, Wisconsin, OK State, OK, Stanford, ND, MSU.
Seems to make some sense, yeah? It may not be a perfect system, but given the results you also can’t just toss it aside without considering that it can provide some solid context for measuring progress at ND.
Anyway, the point remains – our offense and defense are producing on drives like other Top 10 teams, and against a fairly rigorous opening slate of games. And it’s a very balanced amount of production on Offense and Defense. The challenges have been with areas outside of the ‘bulk’ of the game, which is what you do when you have the ball and what you do when the other team has the ball. Do you move it down the field? Or no? Does your opponent move it down the field? Or no?
Further, these stats are looking much better year over year. If we look at our rankings in production from 2005 to YTD2011, you’ll see a pretty positive trend since 2007.
Improvement has really been consistent, and significant. ND went from 118th and 46th in O and D respectively in 2007 to 10th and 10th thus far this year. And this year’s team currently outpeforms ND’s first 2 years of the Weis regime where we were ranked 12th and 26th.
And while this doesn’t make up for those first 2 losses, it does paint a picture of SOME progress. Not amazing, drastic, unbelievable progress in all phases of the game. But good progress. Now it’s up to the team to continue that progress and to clean up those other things so that the progress in production is, more often, translated into points for us, and therefore W’s.