The change is all in the numbers and it starts with the offense. The Irish threw for 250 yards or more four times last year. This season, with Weis's creative call playing and Brady Quinn's efficiency, Notre Dame has broken this mark in nine straight contests. This adds up to a lot more points being put up on the board. The Irish are on pace to break the points per game average (38.2 a contest) and force opposing teams to keep up with their explosive attack. Notre Dame was held under 30 points just once this season. The 2004 team broke the 30-point barrier twice. The Irish did benefit from some porous defensive units on their schedule. Notre Dame only faced one top-25 defense (Tennessee is 13th nationally in total defense) and five others ranked 90th or worse. Another key stat: the Irish are converting 49% on 3rd down. This is up from the 37 percent conversion rate of 2004 and it allows the offense more chances to find the end zone.
Quinn's season ranks as one of the best for a Notre Dame quarterback. There was no doubt the junior was improving before this season. Quinn went from nine touchdowns, 17 interceptions and 1,831 passing yards in 2002 to 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and over 2,500 yards through the air in 2003. Improvement was coming slowly but surely.
Weis's arrival on campus hurried the development from potential star to a possible Heisman Trophy finalist. Quinn's 32 touchdowns and over 3,600 passing yards are just a few of the school records he has set this year. More importantly, a career 50 percent passer has evolved into hitting 65 percent of his throws in 2005. Quinn's repeated statements about staying at Notre Dame for his senior year could make next year's Irish team a possible national title contender.
The quarterback has the luxury of two 6-5 receivers producing monster years. Jeff Samardzija is a Biletnikoff Award finalist after posting 15 touchdown grabs and 1,190 receiving yards, both school records. The junior came into the year with no scoring receptions and a little over 300 yards receiving in his career. Now, Samardzija is considered one of the elite receivers in college football and maybe has produced the best season ever by an Irish wideout. Maurice Stovall is ending his career on a high note. The senior's first three years in a Notre Dame uniform tallied 61 catches for 1046 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2005 alone, Stovall has 60 receptions for 1023 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The ground game has also benefited. Notre Dame averaged only 127 rushing yards per game in 2004 and went over 200 yards only once. This year, the Irish have gone over 200 yards four times and average 154 yards a contest. Behind a more experienced offensive line, Darius Walker has gained over 1,100 yards on the ground this season and saved his best for last with a career-high 35 carries for 186 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown in the Irish's 38-31 BCS-saving win over Stanford.
The defense has had their fair share of ups and downs. Notre Dame has faced four top-25 offenses this year. Two of them, USC (1st in total offense) and Michigan State (6th), had the firepower to outscore the Irish and expose the group's inability to prevent the big play. There were six times that the Irish allowed over 300 yards passing but actually are giving up less yards per game through the air than in 2004.
The main difference between the defensive units of 2004 and 2005 is interceptions and creating key turnovers in the red zone. In the Michigan game, Tom Zbikowski's third quarter pickoff at the goal line and Chinedum Ndukwe's fourth quarter fumble recovery in the end zone prevented the Wolverines from winning the ballgame. What would a loss early on at Michigan have done to this team? The only returning secondary starter coming into the year with an interception was Zbikowski. In 2005, the secondary has 13 interceptions in comparison to nine last season. Leo Ferrine's first career pickoff resulted in the clinching touchdown against Syracuse. The defense as a whole has recovered nine fumbles.
There is no comparison between 2004 and 2005. This year's Notre Dame team has the offense to score with the best of them and a defense that comes up with a big play here and there. Weis's most important stat, and rightfully so, is wins. A victory in a bowl game would give the Irish only their second 10-win season since 1994. Coincidentally, that was the last time Notre Dame won a bowl game. This team has shown marked improvement from last season and the pieces are in place to continue the assault on the record books.