#1 – (Occasional) Defensive ProwessNotre Dame's offense was the only one in the nation to be perfect in each of its 4th-down conversion attempts, 6 for 6. Despite late-season memories to the contrary, the Irish were likewise strong on third down, finishing 19th nationally at 46.55 percent. (Alabama was 18th, Wisconsin #1, and Arkansas was 45th for a few interesting points of reference.)
The Irish were also very good defensively on third down (20th nationally, ahead of Florida State and one spot behind LSU for reference), but were back-of-the pack, tied at 96th in stopping their foes on fourth down, a 12 for 20 conversion rate against.
Couple that with a middle-of-the-pack finish defensively on first down (60th of 120), and the fact that opposing QBs totaled 13 touchdown passes in four of the team's five losses and you have a defense that played well...but one that succumbed (consistently) against play-making QBs.
#2 – Minimal Margin for ErrorIt seemed like a penalty-ridden season, and while the Irish committed 25 more (83) than 2010 (58), Notre Dame's 13 opponents committed a whopping 96 vs. the Irish last fall. Brian Kelly's crew committed more penalties than 78 of 120 FBS teams last fall, 6.38 per game compared to a sterling finish in his first season in which only six squads committed fewer penalties than did his disciplined Irish.
#3 – Attention to Detail, Part IIWhile turnovers are likely the biggest culprit in the team's uneven season, you could likely narrow it down to fumbles, both forced and lost, as a chief concern. Notre Dame ball carriers (and quarterbacks) fumbled 22 times, losing 12. The Irish defense recovered just six fumbles last season, causing 12 (less than one per game).
Only five teams threw fewer interceptions than did the Irish (17): Central Michigan, Vanderbilt, Oregon State, SMU, and East Carolina. Combined records of the quintet? 25-38 with only SMU fielding a winning team at season's end.
And of course, an alarming number of Notre Dame's turnovers produced drastic results last fall.
#4 – You (Don't) Make Your Own BreaksExacerbating the turnover situation was the fact that Notre Dame picked off just eight passes, a 21-season low. Chuck Martin's secondary stole 18 passes in 2010; with five of six chief contributors returning for 2011, the drop-off was wholly unexpected.
Of note, Notre Dame's eight team interceptions is the lowest total at the program since 1990 (9 in 12 games, and that team played for a split of the national title). The defending champion 1989 squad boasted the best total of the last 30 years with 24 picks; the 2002 squad had the most this millennium with 21.
#5 – Hot and ColdNotre Dame's offense produced 46 of the team's 50 total touchdowns; both marks were the highest since 2006 (51 offense/55 total). The catch? Notre Dame scored two or fewer (total) touchdowns in six games: USF, Pittsburgh, USC, BC, Stanford, and FSU (for a 2-4 W-L mark).
They scored a disproportionate 21 touchdowns in three wins over Purdue, Air Force, and Navy – all in October. (And six more vs. Maryland in mid-November.) That's more than half of the season's total touchdowns vs. four teams that finished far from grace.
MiscellanyNotre Dame punted just 56 times last season. The Irish defense forced a whopping 75…The Irish defense allowed just 25 touchdowns on 43 forays into its red zone; it was held out of the opponents' end zone on 16 of 48 trips, coming up empty 11 times…The Irish have compiled three four-game winning streaks over the last 16 contests but have offset the mini-runs by losing consecutive games four times over the last two seasons (including one three-game skid). Over his first two seasons, the only time a Brian Kelly-coached Irish team has responded to a singular loss with a win was last fall, beating Navy after losing to USC. They'll attempt to do so in the season-opener this fall, again against Navy.
In three previous seasons at Cincinnati, Kelly-coached squads lost back-to-back just once over a 40-game span.
Notre Dame's kickers did not miss a PAT for the first time since 2002, with David Ruffer attempting, and hitting, all 47 of his kicks and walk-on Mike Grieco adding the 48th. (The Irish attempted a pair of two-point conversions as well.)
Which begs the question: How did Notre Dame kickers continuously miss at least one PAT from 2003 until last season?
Next in our look(s) back: A review of the team's eight wins last fall and the performance of promising returnees from each.