Notre Dame's statistical totals have been earned this year against a schedule that grades out to be considerably harder than last year as a whole.
Certainly, N.D.'s schedule strength at the end of the year won't be quite as ferocious, but looks likely to finish as the most difficult in the country. Howell, for example, grades N.D.'s strength of schedule at an insane .891, by far the hardest in the country. (The next-hardest schedule has been that of 4-6 Colorado at .820.) N.D.'s strength of schedule last year was .724, which is quite difficult, but only about 15th hardest.
Interestingly, N.D. is leading the opposition in first downs for the year (153 to 150), which works out to 17 first downs gained and 16.7 first downs allowed thus far this year. Last year, N.D.'s opponents actually had the final edge in first downs for the season 217 to 201, which works out to about 15.5 per game by N.D. and 16.7 earned by the opposition.
The offense is, by some measures, improved on last year. N.D. is now averaging about 323 yards per game compared to about 313 last year, and N.D.'s averages seem likely to be better yet by the end of the year.
This continues a painfully slow recovery from the rock-bottom figure of 290 yards per game in 2001. N.D. now averages 4.4 per play, a bit behind last year's 4.7, but N.D. is averaging about 4.7 per play with Quinn at Q.B. and is probably a pretty good bet to at least equal last year's per-play figure by the end of the year.
The reasons for N.D.'s slight improvement on offense by some measures are pretty clear. First, the rushing game has taken a turn for the better behind Julius Jones. N.D. is now threatening to crack the 4-yard per carry mark and the rushing totals are not weighed down by as many sacks.
Last year, N.D. gave up over 3 sacks and 19 yards per game in this department. This year, those totals are a much more manageable 2 sacks and 11 yards per game. Moreover, Quinn has proved to be vastly less sack-prone. In 255 passing attempts this year, Quinn has been sacked only 7 times.
The passing game is not improved, largely due to the almost complete absence of long passing plays (the 85-yard completion to Stovall against Purdue is one of the few examples). Last year, N.D. averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt while this year that total stands at a weak 4.8 (a somewhat better 5.1 with Quinn).
The gap between 2002 and 2003 is not quite as large, however, if sacks were included as passing attempts. The 2003 yards per attempt figure would then be about 5.3 against a figure of 4.3 for 2002.
The defense is not by any measure as good as it was last year. N.D. gives up more yards per game (341 in 2003 versus 300 in 2002), and the primary culprit as been giving up big pass plays on defense. N.D. this year averages a very poor 7.7 per pass attempt on defense versus an excellent 5.9 last year.
So, why is N.D.'s record so much worse this year than last? Statistically, N.D. is perhaps a little bit better on offense and somewhat worse on defense, but the difference isn't large enough that one would think that it should turn a 10-3 team into a 3-6 team.
Most of the answer comes down to field position. Go back to the first downs. How is that in 2003 N.D. has more first downs than the opposition, yet has been outscored by 115 points? How is that in 2002 N.D. had fewer first downs than the opposition yet outscored the opposition by almost 100 points in the regular season?
Or look at it through the lens of total yardage. Last year N.D. won the total yardage battle in only 7 of its 13 games, yet went 4-2 in games where it lost the yardage battle (U.S.C. and N.C. State were the losses) and went 6-1 when it won the total yardage battle (the loss was to B.C.).
This year, N.D. has won the total yardage battle in 5 of its 9 games (outgaining M.S.U., Purdue, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Navy) yet is only 2-3 when winning the total yardage battle and is 1-3 when losing it (the win being over W.S.U. where N.D. was outgained 329 to 316). If you want a particularly sickening way to think about it, N.D. has outgained B.C. by 224 yards total the last two years, and lost both games.
The difference is that last year N.D. played on the short field and this year N.D.'s opponents have had the short field. While last year N.D. constantly scored on turnovers and special teams plays, or gave itself good field position in this regard, this year the shoe has been on the other foot. W.S.U., M.S.U. and F.S.U. all scored directly off of turnovers.
Almost every other N.D. opponent has scored on at least one very short drive, often set up by a punt or kickoff return. A few lowlights in this regard: Breaston's punt returns set up multiple Michigan scores. One of Pittsburgh's two touchdowns was on a 4-yard drive set up by a long return. Critical Purdue scores were set up by long kickoff returns where Setta was twice forced to make the tackle. Navy's final three scoring drives started on N.D.'s 41, 40 and 39-yard lines, all set up by short punts.
If N.D. were the team playing on the short field this year, the Irish would very likely be 6-3 as the Purdue, M.S.U. and B.C. games were all more than close enough that they could have been turned around.
It's something to think about for the rest of this year and next.