When Notre Dame fell to Texas 50-47 in double-overtime on the opening weekend of the 2016 college football season, the Longhorns ended one of Brian Kelly’s longest streaks with the Irish.
In 19 games in which the Irish did not commit a turnover since 2010, Kelly’s first season in South Bend, Notre Dame was a perfect 19-0…until the loss to the Longhorns.
Shaun Crawford’s interception of a Shane Buechele third-quarter pass marked the only turnover of the game. The Irish had not lost a game with zero turnovers since Oct. 17, 2009, when USC defeated Notre Dame, 34-27.
It was the fourth straight season-opener under Kelly in which the Irish did not cough up the football. Notre Dame went unscathed in the turnover column against Temple in 2013, Rice in 2014 and Texas in 2015.
The last time Notre Dame committed a turnover in a season-opener was 2012 when Navy’s Parrish Gaines picked off Everett Golson in the lid-lifter in Dublin.
In 2015, the Irish lost 10 fumbles, although only three were committed by running backs. C.J. Prosise had two (Clemson and Boston College) and Josh Adams had one (Boston College).
Notre Dame’s other fumbles were committed by quarterbacks (DeShone Kizer 2, Brandon Wimbush), receivers (Chris Brown, Torii Hunter, Jr., Alize Jones), and a kick returner (C.J. Sanders).
Although the Spartans lost the turnover battle to Furman in their season-opener, 2-1, Michigan State has been a turnover-forcing machine during Mark Dantonio’s recent run of success.
• Last year, the Spartans were a plus-14 in turnover margin, which tied for fourth nationally. Just eight FCS teams forced more turnovers than Michigan State’s 28.
• In 2014, the Spartans were plus-19 in turnover margin, which was second in the country. Only two teams had more turnovers forced than Michigan State’s 34.
• Michigan State tied for eighth in turnover margin in 2013 at plus-13 when the Spartans created another 28 thefts.
It’s no coincidence that in those three seasons, Michigan State had a combined 36-5 record.
“Well, I mean I think…probably… we just…coached it better,” quipped Brian Kelly when asked about Notre Dame’s recent success protecting the football.
But the fact is the Irish were not good at all in turnover differential in 2015. Notre Dame was a minus-six, which tied for 102nd in the country. Notre Dame created just 14 turnovers while committing 20 miscues (10 fumbles lost, 10 interceptions). Thirty percent of Kizer’s 10 interceptions came against Boston College.
The Spartans won the turnover margin 11 out of its first 13 games last season before Alabama dominated every stat in the 38-0 playoff drubbing. Michigan State defeated Ohio State in Columbus despite a minus-two turnover margin, but lost to Nebraska with a plus-one.
The real culprit for Notre Dame has been its inability to create turnovers. In addition to the minus-nine turnover margin the last three years combined, Notre Dame created just 54 turnovers from 2013-15. During that same time span, Michigan State created 90.
The Irish were a minus-six a year ago, minus-three in 2014 and at the break-even point in 2013.
The high-water mark of the past three seasons -- 23 turnovers created in 2014 – was imbalanced. The Irish caused 12 turnovers in the first five games of the Brian VanGorder era, and then just 11 more over the final eight games when opponents scored at a 40-point clip.
The last time the Irish finished on the plus side in turnover margin was in 2012 (plus-eight).
If the Irish want to avoid their second defeat in three games, they’ll likely need to win a category that Michigan State normally dominates.