We decided to do a little research and take a look at the 2003 stats for two of Notre Dame's top rivals—USC and Michigan. The Trojans won a share of the National Championship with a 12-1 season in 2003. Michigan finished 2003 with a 10-3 record and a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. We think it's important to look at successful teams and rivals to notice trends. We noticed a number of areas statistically where the Irish fell short of the numbers amassed by both USC and Michigan.
First, let's take a look at the offenses of all three teams.
The first obvious stat is points per game. The Irish averaged just 20.2 points per game in 2003—USC averaged 41 points per game, and Michigan averaged 35. The next obvious question is why did both USC and Michigan score more points?
The running game is where the tough yards are earned and the Irish averaged 4.0 yards per carry—Michigan averaged 4.3 and USC average 4.5 yards per carry. Where the Irish really struggled was scoring touchdowns while running the football. Notre Dame scored just 13 times on the ground—Michigan scored 29 times and USC scored 20 rushing touchdowns.
The inexperience at offensive line really hurt the Irish in 2003. They obviously struggled scoring in red zone situations. For the Irish to get back to the top, they'll need to find an answer when inside the 20 and trying to punch it in on the ground.
Another area the Irish struggle was pass completion percentage. The Irish had just a 47 percent completion percentage in 2003. Michigan was at an even 60 and USC finished at 62 percent.
The high completion percentage also was evident for Michigan and USC in yards per attempt (7.4 Mich., 8.4 USC) and yards per completion (12.4 Mich., 13.8 USC). The Irish average just 5.2 per attempt and 11.0 per completion.
The Irish also struggled in yardage totals compared to Michigan and USC. Notre Dame amassed just 2,149 yards total, or just 179 yards per game through the air. Michigan totaled 3,520 and 270 yards per game, while the Trojans totaled 3,781 yards per game and 291 yards per game.
The Trojans averaged throwing more than 100 yards per game more than the Irish. They also scored 39 touchdowns through the air while the Irish scored just a paltry 10 (Michigan scored 26).
The Trojans also completed 100 more passes than did the Irish, 274 to 172. That's over 100 more successful plays in the passing game for the Trojans, an impressive statistic.
Notre Dame quarterbacks also threw 19 interceptions on the season compared to the 10 thrown by Michigan quarterbacks and nine thrown by Trojan quarterbacks.
Notre Dame must improve on their pass efficiency. They will have to be able to complete more passes and learn to protect the football better when throwing to improve their chances of winning. USC scored 234 more points through the air than the Irish or 19.5 points per game more than Notre Dame through the air—a shocking statistic considering what the Irish are trying to accomplish on offense.
When you look at the offense, the Irish have to find a way to punch the ball in when they are in red zone opportunities. The experience the offensive line gained in 2003 should help the Irish score more often on the ground.
They will also need to find a way to be much more effective in their passing game. We are now in year three of the Willingham/Diedrick offense transformation. There should be no reason for the Irish to rank 115th out of 117 teams in pass efficiency—exactly where they landed in 2003. This area hurt the Irish more on offense than any other. Notre Dame must find an answer for their struggling passing game to have any chance of having a good season in 2004.
Another forgotten stat by most is third down and fourth down efficiency. The Irish converted just 31 percent of their third down opportunities (USC 39, Michigan 49 percent). They also converted 40 percent of their fourth down opportunities ( USC 45, Mich. 59 percent).
Converting third down opportunities will keep Irish drives alive allowing the team more chances to score. An increase in pass completion percentage will help this stat, but it's not all passing that contributes to this stat. Many times the Irish struggled in converting third-and-short situations on the ground which also adds to this stat.
The defense also slipped a bit compared to their 2002 stats.
The Notre Dame defense allowed 26.2 points per game in 2003. That was almost a 10 point increase from the 2002 total of 16.7 points per game.
The Irish drop off in productivity was against both the run and the pass. The Irish allowed just 95.5 yards per game on the ground in 2002 compared to the 127.2 yards per game in 2003. The real problem on the ground was the 2003 Irish defense also allowed 19 touchdowns on the compared to the 11 in 2002.
Against the pass, the Irish also slipped a bit. They allowed 16 touchdowns through the air in 2003 compared to the 12 in 2002. Other stats that increased were the yards per attempt (7.6 in 2003 compared to 5.9 in 2002) and yards per catch (13.2 in 2003 compared to 11.9 in 2002).
When taking a look at Michigan and USC, their 2003 numbers are similar to the numbers posted by the Irish in 2002—when the Irish were known to have a very good defense.
Michigan allowed 16.8 points per game in 2003 and USC allowed 18.4 points per game. Michigan allowed just 14 touchdowns on the ground compared to the 19 by the Irish defense in 2003 (USC allowed just nine).
The Trojan defense also allowed just 60.2 yards per game on the ground, while the Wolverines allowed 116.
USC also allowed just 6.3 yards per passing attempt and 11.5 yards per catch. Michigan was even more impressive with 5.7 yards per attempt and 10.6 per completion.
When you compare the numbers posted by USC and Michigan compared to Notre Dame, it's easy to see the Irish slipped in their production compared to these top teams. Combine a slipping defense with a struggling offense and you have a recipe for disaster.
When you compare the 2002 and 2003 Irish stats, the defensive numbers are pretty similar in yardage. The Irish did give up more yards on the ground, but not a significant amount. So why the almost 10 point difference in scoring? Big plays likely played a large role and the increase in touchdowns scored is evidence of the big plays.
The defense didn't play terribly in 2003. They did give up too many big plays as evidence by the scoring. If the Irish can eliminate/limit the big plays in 2004, they could have a solid defense—something easier said than done when playing with an inexperienced secondary.
The formula for success for the Irish in 2004 is simple. On offense, they must become more efficient in the red zone—especially when running the football. They must complete more passes while protecting the football when throwing. And, they must be more efficient on third down.
On defense, they'll have to find a way to become more stingy on the ground—especially in the red zone. They also need to limit the big plays in the passing game and yards after the catch. Most important, they need to limit the touchdowns scored in the red zone by forcing more field goals.
If the Irish can do these six things (plus be successful on special teams), they will have a very successful season—as we said earlier, easier said than done.
We didn't have enough information to compare special teams as statistics are hard to come by in regards to special teams. We will say the Irish finished 101st in net punting and 75th in kickoff returns out of 117 teams. Special teams also struggled in 2003 and special teams can win or lose games. We think it's very important, but we didn't have enough statistics to compare.