Regression to the (new) Mean

Our weekly Sunday Drive Thru picks up the pieces after another sobering Saturday.

"Nothing has changed." That common theme among Irish fans following back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Michigan and Michigan State was clearly illustrated by two separate events Saturday afternoon; neither of which occurred between the lines of play.

  1. Prior to the Purdue and Michigan contests – games defined by the dawn of the Brian Kelly era – my pre-game walk from car to stadium was replete with a buzz befitting a Notre Dame campus alive with hope and belief in a new era. Parties in every front yard; packed tailgate lots; drunken revelry, the smell of barbecue and a teeming mass of humanity that's difficult to navigate with a laptop slung over one's shoulder.

    Yesterday, same time, same parking spot, same walk…the highlight was a former neighbor selling media guides/programs, fittingly only from the program's past. It was about 500 yards later, north of the too-welcoming and commercial Irish Green, and just south of Legends near the Joyce Lot, that I believe I had to break stride…for the first time. When the Stadium South crowd resembles an art fair on September 25 at high noon, you, as a new coach, as a program, and as a lifelong fan, have a problem.

  2. No (audible) boos from the faithful…but plenty of empty seats by the time the 1812 Overture serenaded the squad entering the 4th Quarter; a time in which the Irish trailed by just two scores. I know the Irish showed few signs of life, but no Notre Dame crowd should pack it in prior to the concession workers below.

Remember, the opposite of love isn't hate...and apathy has again hit the program before the first leaf has fallen in South Bend.

Welcome back to the September of our discontent.

Six for Six

Gerry Faust was fired in 1985 after a 30-26-1 record that included a 1-3 start to the '85 season. Since, each coach hired at Notre Dame has also suffered through a 1-3 start or worse: Lou Holtz in his first season ('86); Bob Davie in his first, third and final ('97, '99, and '01…nice effort, by the way); Tyrone Willingham in his second ('03) and Charlie Weis in his third, falling to 0-5 in 2007.

Yesterday, Brian Kelly joined Holtz and Davie as first-year coaches forced to deal with the end of a honeymoon period before Halloween decorations hit their neighbors' front porch.

Holtz built a champion. Davie contributed to the ruins currently strewn before you.

Detractors that judge Kelly by his recent failed predecessors suddenly have ample, if misguided ammo. Believers that know the Irish finally got their man hark back to Holtz's rough start and continued improvement through season's end. Those that embraced the corny, but real rallying cry, "Those who stay will be champions," had their faith tested for the first time Saturday.

I remain firm in my belief that the Irish hired their next championship-level coach last December, though I'm shaken by the regression the team showed in Week Four vs. an opponent I admittedly underrated (defensively), but one that should never have had its way with the Irish on their home turf.

Speaking of that previously hallowed ground, Notre Dame has lost four of its last six home contests; 6 of its last 11 dating back through 2008; and 12 of their last 22 through 2007. I suppose that'd be okay if they hadn't dropped three straight away from home and eight of their last 10 true road tilts. They do fare well in San Antonio and Baltimore though, so a November trip to Yankee Stadium should be safe for fans' collective hearts if not their pockets.

Brian Kelly sold belief over the spring and summer months. But now how do you convince a senior class that's lost 24 of 41 career contests to trust in a time-proven system when they have so little time left? How do impart to your junior leaders that losing to every team they encountered with some semblance of pulse over their tenure is something you won't stand for?

And how do you explain to others who can't crack the lineup that they should embrace the process when those ahead of them repeatedly fall short?

Rome wasn't built in a day and a winning football team isn't generally built in a single off-season. Seasons, however, are often saved in the final two months.

Stats that lie vs. stats that tell tales

Both Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar have noted on multiple occasions that Time of Possession ranks as one of the sport's most overvalued statistics. That was the case for their 2009 Bearcats squad, one that finished 120th out of 120 FBS teams in possession, but No. 4 in scoring at 39 per game.

Cincy scored fast, early and often, featuring a quarterback tandem that dominated opponents, and a trio of targets that took the former mid-major Bearcats to the brink of the BCS title game.

Kelly's first Notre Dame offense, on the other hand, features the universally accepted and reviled statistic: The Punt – 21 of them from Ben Turk's right foot, which puts the '10 Irish at nearly half of last year's season total of boots (45) after just one month.

The Money Down: Kelly's '09 crew ranked first nationally with an average of better than 8-yards per play on 3rd down. This season, his Irish, stocked with a proven tailback, wide receiver and tight end, have converted just 19 of 53 third or fourth down opportunities into a new set of downs. (Notre Dame was 4 of 13 yesterday; 4 of 14 vs. Michigan – its last two home tilts).

Cashing In: In 2009, Weis' Irish finished with more total yards per game than did Kelly's Bearcats, but Notre Dame struggled in the red zone, ranking 41st nationally thanks to just 28 touchdowns over 50 drives inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Cincinnati's Tony Pike was the No. 1 rated red zone QB in the nation in 2009 and Kelly's offense piled up 42 touchdowns in 58 such trips.

That Queen City magic touch has yet to follow Kelly & Co. to South Bend where the 2010 Irish have managed just six touchdowns in 14 red zone forays.

Kelly's '09 Cincy squad suffered just three turnovers through 11 contests last season (entering the de facto Big East Championship game vs. Pittsburgh and what became a slop-fest at Heinz Field). His first Irish squad has tripled that number through four games.

Critical of the contrarian: As for that purportedly overvalued statistic, time of possession? Somewhere the football gods are smiling, as Kelly's crew again sits nearly dead last (117 of 120 teams)… but with a paltry national scoring ranking of No. 78 to show for it.

Numbers and trends don't decide games – though 9 total points in the 4th Quarter this season has helped decide a few for the Irish – but these statistic are worth revisiting at season's end if not the end of its first month.

Kelly's first Irish crew won't approach the '09 Bearcats refined level after three years in the coach's scheme, but they should certainly approach an acceptable level for a program with nearly a calendar year of schooling under a head coach that's proven over two decades to be among the nation's best offensive minds.

Game Balls

A fair share of the Fighting Irish were flat or appeared overmatched Saturday. These were the exceptions:

Ready for a roll? Michael Floyd for bouncing back with his best effort of the season, going after the ball with authority and searching for daylight (that wasn't there) after every grab en route to an 8-catch, 110-yard afternoon. Incidentally, Notre Dame has now lost five consecutive games when Floyd tops the 100-yard receiving mark.

Where've you been? Junior cornerback Robert Blanton, who played the best game of his post-freshman career: Blanton defended three sideline routes that specifically targeted him for touchdowns. He used proper form on the first, avoiding a potential pass interference call when he turned his head late to make a play on the ball, then riding the receiver out of bounds on the catch.

He recovered after an awkward step to break up a deep ball to the fastest player on the field, Chris Owusu; then showed perfect coverage and impressive coordination to break up another go-route to Owusu, creating an interception for teammate Jamoris Slaughter in the process.

The Irish run defense: The potent Stanford ground game played winning football, finishing with 166 yards on 44 carries. But the Cardinal scored its only rushing touchdown after four carries inside the ND 2-yard line and managed more than 9 yards on just one run over the entire afternoon. The Notre Dame rush defense isn't a BCS Bowl level group, but it kept the overwhelmed Irish offense in the contest Saturday afternoon.

Old reliable: Armando Allen for running (into brick walls) with heart and determination, spinning, fighting, gritting his teeth and returning from a knee injury when most hope (and the crowd) was lost. Allen gained 52 yards on 15 carries despite repeated failures in front of him.

EDIT: Manti Te'o The following text was somehow erased when I transferred from file to site, an obvious error:

Notre Dame's unquestioned player of the game and leader of the defense finished with a career-best 21 tackles including a staggering 16 after the break. Te'o came of age as a football player in the worst defeat of his young career.

Said Kelly of Te'o: "He played with a will today. He had a look on his face, a toughness to him that he hasn't displayed since he's been a player here at Notre Dame. Today is one of those watershed moments for a defensive player that we can model."

Taking one on the chin, again

Notre Dame's 1-3 start ranks among college football's biggest disappointments through one month. I expected 3-1, 2-2 at worst. I expected an offense that would be better in Week Four than in Week One, regardless of the opponent and I didn't expect to need three different descriptive adjectives to impart the phrase "less-than-inspiring" in print on three consecutive Sundays.

But what pains most long-time Irish fans the most about Saturday's public flogging at the hands of Stanford is that the Cardinal beat the Irish at their own game. They were tougher up front, (especially the Stanford defensive front seven vs. the Irish blockers), they were crisper and more confident in play-action while competing for the ball in the air; they used a bevy of ‘backs to wear down their foe, and they came up with the physical, decisive stops and conversions when needed.

It hurts that Stanford beat Notre Dame at its own game in its own Stadium. The sting lingers because that's not Notre Dame's game anymore. Top Stories