Early Season Learning Curve

One of the difficulties that ND has faced early in the season in some recent years is being "behind" opponents in terms of the number of games each team has played. Fortunately, that won't be a factor this year.

Although the game itself went badly, moving the BYU game up last year made sense given ND's recent history. Moving the Pittsburgh game up in 2005 also makes sense. Early in the season, ND has been at a distinct disadvantage when facing teams that have had at least one extra week of preparation.

Starting with 1998, here's a list of the games that ND has played early on when they've played an even or better number of games than its opponents:

Michigan 1998: W 36-20
Kansas 1999: W 48-13
@ Michigan 1999: L 22-26
@ Purdue 1999: L 23-28
Texas A&M 2000: W 24-10
Nebraska 2000: L 24-27 (OT)
Purdue 2000: W 23-21
@ Maryland 2002: W 22-0
Purdue 2002: W 24-17
Michigan 2002: W 25-23
@ BYU 2004: L 17-20
Michigan 2004: W 28-20
MSU 2004: W 31-24
9 Wins--4 Losses
Average points for: 26.7
Average points vs.: 19.2

Some obvious things stand out about this list. Three of the four losses were close road losses (and both in 1999 involved freakish plays and/or dubious calls) and the other was an epic overtime loss to then-#1 Nebraska. Now let's look at the games over this time frame where ND has been down a game or more in preparation.

@ MSU 1998: L 23-45
Purdue 1998: W 31-30
@ Nebraska 2001: L 10-27
MSU 2001: L 10-17
@ Texas A&M 2001: L 3-24
WSU 2003: W 29-26 (OT)
@ Michigan 2003: L 0-38
MSU 2003: L 16-22
2 Wins--6 Losses
Average points for: 15.4
Average points vs.: 28.5

An examination of this list of games is painful. They include some of the most notorious losses of the last several years. Moreover, the two wins were fortunate affairs with Tony Driver intercepting two passes late to beat Purdue and then ND rallying improbably from a 19-0 deficit against WSU.

The common denominator in these games has been that the opponents have come out and jumped on ND early, taking the Irish out of the game almost immediately. MSU in 1998 roared to a 42-3 lead at halftime. The Nebraska game in 2001 was seemingly 17-0 before it started. Michigan was in control from about the second series against ND in 2003 when ND couldn't convert on an early scoring chance.

Part of it probably is that early on in the season defenses really are ahead of offenses, and so opposing offenses that have had an extra week to tune up are in much better shape.

Consider the recent history against Michigan and Nebraska. ND, of course, beat Michigan in close games in 2002 and 2004 but suffered the worse loss of Willingham's tenure in 2003. Why?

Some of it may have been home versus road, but actually home and road hasn't made all that much difference in the ND-Michigan series, and it surely can't account for an average point swing in excess of 40.

Ditto the Nebraska series where the teams looked quite evenly matched in 2000 (ND actually controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half, not allowing Nebraska to run the ball and moving it reasonably well at times) but the Irish looked utterly helpless in 2001.

The difference can't be explained in terms of the difference in quality of the Michigan or Nebraska teams. Michigan was 10-3, 10-3 and 9-3 from 2002-04; Nebraska was 10-2 in 2000 and 11-2 in 2001.

Consider, though, where those teams were in terms of preparation relative to ND. In 2003 Michigan had tuned up on Central Michigan and Houston by a combined 95-10. ND had a gut-wrenching, lucky win over WSU. Michigan had had a chance to work out some kinks. ND had worked out nothing.

Or consider Nebraska in 2001. Nebraska actually had played two games already in 2001. The Huskers were actually well short of awesome beating TCU 21-7 (a game that was competitive into the fourth quarter) and actually struggled for most of the first half before disposing of Troy State 42-14. They actually dominated ND to a far greater degree than they did those two early opponents.

If we look a bit deeper, some of the answer lies in turnovers. In those games where ND has been even or ahead in games played the Irish have given up 25 turnovers (1.9 per game) and forced 33 (2.5 per game). So ND is generally net positive on turnovers in those games. But the differential is almost exactly reversed where ND is behind a game. In those games, ND has given up the ball 21 times (2.6 per game) and forced 16 turnovers (2.0 per game).

Both Davie and Willingham generally came out with very conservative game plans in those early games, especially on the road. When ND avoided turning the ball over, the Irish could play field position and either win or at least not get blown out. But when ND came out and faced a team moving at game speed while they were finding their legs (as happened in Lincoln, College Station, Ann Arbor and East Lansing) the Irish found themselves down by a large margin early and turnovers were almost always a factor.

None of this excuses the way the Irish played or were coached in those games. The Irish could have tried to turn the situation into a positive by showing things that the opponents couldn't have scouted.

The one thing, for example, that seemed to catch Nebraska off guard in 2001 was when Holiday came into the game at QB in the second quarter and started running and throwing on the run. ND went on its best drive of the game moving 64 yards to kick a field goal to make the game 17-3 in the middle of the second quarter. For just a second, ND fans could imagine it becoming a game. After all, Nebraska had taken a 21-7 lead in the third quarter the year before; perhaps a big play or two and ND would be back in the game.

In a coaching tenure filled with inexplicable moves, certainly ranking near the top had to be Davie's decision to come back with LoVecchio at QB on the next series. By halftime it was 27-3 Nebraska and any breath of life was completely gone.

Good coaches can overcome problems like a preparation advantage of the opponent. Devine, for example, in 1979 beat Michigan on the road even though it was ND's first game and Michigan's second. Moreover, it might not make as much of a difference is ND had early opponents like Western Illinois and Maine (Nebraska's 2004 and 2005 openers, respectively).

But when you open with two teams that played in BCS bowls last year, the margin for error is considerably smaller.

Fortunately, ND won't have to deal with the "game behind" problem this year.

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