Accepting that Notre Dame is unlikely to turn the ball over 26 times as it did in 2014, below are a list of nine other telltale statistical categories in which the Irish will improve this fall.
(The number in parenthesis represents Notre Dame’s total in 2014)
1.) Defensive Red Zone TD Percentage (70%): Wait, what? How is that possible? They’ll be better because they can’t be worse? What this statistic means is that Notre Dame opponents made 50 trips into the Irish red zone last fall and scored touchdowns on 35 of them. Way to bow up, guys…
-- Kelly Era Best: You guessed it, 2012 marked the defense’s best effort when Bob Diaco’s red zone crew allowed touchdowns on just 13 of the 38 opponents’ forays inside the 20-yard line.
2.) Games in which the Irish D allows 3 or more TD (8): The last eight foes of 2014 posted at least three offensive touchdowns. Look for that streak to end in the season opener and for only five or fewer Irish opponents to turn the trick in 2015.
-- Kelly Era Best: One team, in 2012. It was the wrong one, incidentally, but one nonetheless.
3.) Yards Per Play Against ND (5.6): It was the worst number of the last five seasons with three other years showing exactly 5.1 yards per play against, and of course. Of note, Charlie Weis’ last Irish team yielded 6.2 yards per play, far and away the worst mark of the school’s modern era.
-- Kelly Era Best: 4.8 yards per play allowed, 2012.
4.) 3rd Down Defense (Ranked 79th nationally): The Irish allowed a 41.1 percent conversion clip last fall, that following a Kelly-era worst 41.9 percent effort in 2013. Both numbers are in stark contrast to the first three seasons of the Kelly era as noted below.
-- Kelly Era Best: 34.2% in 2011, 20th-best nationally. Kelly’s first-edition Irish, the 2010 squad, finished 28th at 36.4% while the dominant 2012 defense ranked 35th (36.5% clip).
5.) Fourth Quarter Points Allowed (90): It was the second-worst mark of the Kelly-era – the 2011 defense folded in the fourth to the tune of 119 points allowed, though that number includes six garbage-time scores (a total of 42 irrelevant points). It’s worth pointing out that 21 of the 90 fourth quarter points yielded by the Irish defense last season qualified as irrelevant, so the 2011 D was slightly worse in this regard (79 fourth quarter points that mattered vs. 69 last season).
-- Kelly Era Best: 39 fourth quarter points allowed in 2012, 20 of which occurred in competitive game action.
6.) Games in Excess of 200 Rushing Yards (5): Before you shout, “Obviously Better!” this prediction is actually going out on a statistical limb, as five of Notre Dame’s 12 foes this fall ranked among the nation’s 26 best rush defenses in 2014: Boston College, Clemson and Stanford were top 10; Virginia ranked #18 and USC #26, while Temple yielded only 3.7 yards per rush and ranked fourth in scoring defense.
-- Kelly Era Best: Look for the 2015 Irish to tie the Kelly-era best effort of seven games in excess of 200 rushing yards set in 2012. Of note, the 2010-11 and 2013 Irish seasons combined for just six such outings.
7.) Sacks Allowed (28): That’s 28 sacks surrendered one season after the 2013 Irish front yielded just eight. EIGHT!
They’ll be better for myriad reasons including a run-heavy attack and the extreme likelihood that Malik Zaire will be given a primary and two check down receivers this fall, a stark contrast to Golson’s full-field progressions in 2014.
-- Kelly Era Best: Eight by the 2013 squad, obviously.
8.) Offensive Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (64.5%): We’re going out on a bit of a limb, because this is a solid percentage. For instance, it ranks a percentage point higher than Wisconsin’s effort and is likewise better than 2014 playoff contenders Arizona State and Florida State. And it’s similar to Oregon (65%). But when Notre Dame didn’t score a touchdown inside the red zone last fall, it often came away empty – a remarkable eight turnovers included.
Look for the 2015 squad to be marginally better in terms of touchdowns and far better in terms of points produced in the red zone overall.
-- Kelly Era Best: A 66.6 percent effort in 2011. (The 2011 season includes many statistical outliers because the Irish faced a preponderance of outstanding or terrible teams. There wasn’t much middle ground to be found among the foes.)
9.) Yards per rush, ND (4.3): If they’re not better in this regard, the final W-L record won’t be, either.
-- Kelly Era Best: 4.8 in 2012 with an end-season tumble courtesy the Crimson Tide. As Tim Prister pointed out in his Fighting Irish Facts, Notre Dame’s inconsistency as a program since the conclusion of the Lou Holtz era in 1996 is linked to this telltale statistic.
On tap: “For Worse” – Important statistical categories in which the Irish will fall short of their 2014 totals.