Measuring Notre Dame's Improvement In 2002

Even the most casual of observers of college football and I count among the most casual a majority of the talking heads on the major networks cannot fail to have observed that Notre Dame is a football team that is considerably improved in 2002.

Notre Dame's best defensive performance last year was probably the 24-7 defeat of Pittsburgh, but in that game Pitt rushed 26 times for 50 yards (1.9 per carry) while the Irish held Maryland to 16 yards on 21 carries (0.8 per carry). Pittsburgh also managed 182 yards on 22 pass attempts (a healthy 8.2 per attempt) while the Irish limited the Terps to 117 yards on 32 attempts (for a meager 3.7 per attempt).

Notre Dame's only shutout in the Davie era was the 1998 Navy game, won by N.D. 30-0. In that game, however, Navy posted much more impressive statistics than the Terps did, as the Midshipmen ran for 137 yards on 43 attempts (a reasonable 3.2 per attempt) and passed for 102 yards on 17 attempts (a decent 6.0 per attempt). In fact, to find anything like the Maryland game, one must return to the 1996 (Holtz's last year) game against Rutgers, which the Irish won 62-0, where the opposing offense was limited to about one yard per play for the entire game. Maryland, fresh off a 10-win season and a berth in the Orange Bowl, was also a considerably better opponent than any of these three teams. Rutgers in 1996 was 2-9 (its only wins coming against Villanova and Temple), Navy in 1998 was 3-8 (its wins coming against Kent St., Colgate and Boston College) and last year's Pittsburgh squad was 6-5 in the regular season, but four of its wins were against very marginal teams: East Tennessee St., Rutgers, Temple and Alabama-Birmingham.

Offensively, Notre Dame made huge strides in the passing department, with Holiday completing 17 of 27 for 226 yards (an excellent 8.4 per attempt). To find similar passing days, one must return to Jarious Jackson's record setting 1999 season. Jackson, for example, in a 31-29 loss to Boston College that year, was 19 of 34 for 283 yards. Only the rushing offense must be counted as a mild disappointment with 130 yards on 45 carries (2.9 per carry), though more on that later.

Of course, it's only one game, but it's a very promising start. But probably the more interesting question as the season progresses is how to assess the totality of Notre Dame's improvement.

Football coaches are appropriately judged on wins and losses. But one season is a very small sample. One-year records can be skewed by lucky wins, unlucky losses, changes in schedule difficulty, gaps in the roster that the coach has not yet been able to address, injuries, timely and untimely turnovers, and a host of other factors, can all make a coach's records look better or worse than it would be in the long run.

Consider, for example, that Gerry Faust's 1985 squad and Lou Holtz's 1986 squad both finished 5-6, yet Holtz's season left most Irish fans with a great deal of hope. In Holtz's last year at N.D. he won eight games and in Bob Davie's first year (1997) the Irish won seven games. Did this mean that Faust, Holtz and Davie were all coaches of approximately equal ability? Hardly.

A longer term look at a coach's record can tell you most of what you need to know about his ability. Faust was 30-26-1 (.535) and never won more than seven games in a season. Holtz, however, after his first two years at N.D. was a stellar 87-20-2 (.807) with a national championship in 1988, two 12-win seasons and reasonable claims to the national championship in 1989 and 1993. Even Bob Davie's modest 35-25 (.583) may overstate his abilities, because he was 16-7 up until the U.S.C. game in 1998 but then 19-18 for the rest of his tenure. So clearly Holtz was by far the best coach of the three, even if it might not have been obvious from the first year records.

An easy-to-calculate and probably more accurate assessment of a team's improvement is to look at its scoring differential i.e., the total number of points that it scores less the total number of points it gives up in a season across years. Interestingly, N.D. has had only two years since Ara took over in 1964 where its scoring differential was negative. In 1985 (Faust's last year) the Irish were negative four and in 2001 (Davie's last year) the Irish were negative one (214 points scored and 215 surrendered).

In 1985, as already mentioned, Faust's squad was -4 on point differential, but in 1986 Holtz's team (though also 5-6) was +80, suggesting that the Irish were on the right track. In 1987 the 8-4 Irish were +121 and in 1988 the 12-0 Irish were +237. So while the first-year record didn=t show it, the general impression that Notre Dame was improving was certainly correct.

Undoubtedly the most sudden improvement ever by an N.D. coach was Ara in 1964. N.D.'s 2-7 squad in 1963 was a dismal -51 but in Ara's first year the Irish were 9-1, had a differential of + 210, and narrowly missed winning the national championship. In 1965 Ara's 7-2-1 squad was +197 and then his national championship squad of 1966 was +324.

To consider the other side of the coin, Devine's final squad (1980) was +120 but in Faust's first year the margin fell to +72. In Holtz's last year N.D. was +226 (one of four times Holtz had N.D. at +200 or better) but then in Davie's first year the margin fell all the way to +17. Thus, while Davie's 1997 win total was only one less than Holtz's 1996, the point differential showed that there was trouble abrewing. In fact, in Davie's two relative good years the 9-3 squads of 1998 and 2000 N.D. was only +80 and +86, margins essentially identical to those that Holtz achieved in his only losing season at N.D.

Probably an even more precise measurement is to look at the four fundamental statistics: yards per rush, yards per pass, yards allowed per rush and yards allowed per pass. Total yards are often frequently cited as a measure of a team=s strength, but can be a very misleading statistic. Suppose that Vontez Duff had fair caught the punt that he returned for a touchdown and that N.D. had commenced a drive from about its own 25 and gained 30 yards to the Maryland 45 and then punted back to Maryland. N.D. would've had 30 more yards in total offense but would've won the game only 15-0. Getting turnovers as well can often hurt a team=s total yardage. A team playing on a short field for most of the game will not rack up huge yardage, but will almost certainly win the game.

A slightly better measure is to look at yards per play. Notre Dame averaged 4.9 per play and Maryland only 2.5 per play, which gives you some idea of the relative dominance of the Irish in that game. The problem, though, is that yardage per play undervalues a rushing attack. The average yards per rush among Division I-A teams is about 3.9 and the average yards per pass is 6.9, yet about 55% of the plays are running plays. Why? Running is simply a more reliable way of gaining small numbers of yards. Even in very effective passing attacks roughly 40% of the plays will result in no gain (incompletions), yet over 90% of rushing plays will gain at least one yard. A team that runs a lot and runs effectively will never amass gaudy per-play averages, but is certain to win a great majority of its games.

So, to really see where a team is headed, compare its statistics in those four categories across years. Let's consider how these basic statistics have compared across coaching changes. First here's the 1964 transition to Ara (+ means improvement for N.D):

1963 (Devore) Yards per rush: 3.2 Yards per pass: 5.2 Yards vs. rush: 3.7 Yards vs. pass: 6.6

1964 (Ara) Yards per rush: 4.2 (+1.0) Yards per pass: 9.5 (+4.3) Yards vs. rush: 2.0 (+1.7) Yards vs. pass: 6.0 (+0.6)

Clearly Ara had N.D. on the right track, as all four of the fundamental statistics improved.

Now consider the switch from Ara to Devine:

1974 (Ara) Yards per rush: 4.6 Yards per pass: 7.1 Yards vs. rush: 2.3 Yards vs. pass: 5.0 1975 (Devine) Yards per rush: 4.2 (-0.4) Yards per pass: 5.6 (-1.5) Yards vs. rush: 3.5 (-1.2) Yards vs. pass: 5.8 (-0.8)

As we can see, in every category N.D. got worse the first year under Devine, which signaled that Devine was not as good of a coach as Ara. The program, however, was functioning at a high level and the falloff was nothing like the horrifying drop in Davie's first year (below), and the decline from 10-2 to 8-3 in the record was probably about indicative of where the team stood. Now to the Devine to Faust handoff. 1980 (Devine) Yards per rush: 4.2 Yards per pass: 4.9 Yards vs. rush: 2.8 Yards vs. pass: 4.9 1981 (Faust) Yards per rush: 4.0 (-0.2) Yards per pass: 6.4 (+1.5) Yards vs. rush: 3.6 (-0.8) Yards vs. pass: 5.8 (-0.9)

In Faust's case, three of the four indicators dropped, which was a worrisome sign, along with the obvious falloff in the record, though probably the decline in that year wasn't quite as great as the drop from a 9-2-1 record to 5-6. Now for the Faust to Holtz handoff: 1985 (Faust) Yards per rush: 3.7 Yards per pass: 6.8 Yards vs. rush: 3.5 Yards vs. pass: 6.7 1986 (Holtz) Yards per rush: 3.8 (+0.1) Yards per pass: 8.4 (+1.6) Yards vs. rush: 3.1 (+0.4) Yards vs. pass: 6.9 (-0.2)

Note that Holtz had three of the four indicators going in the right direction and the falloff in pass defense was very small. This indicated that even though the record remained constant that Holtz had the team pointed in the right direction, an observation confirmed by the team's obviously improved play and their 1-5 record games decided by 5 points or fewer. Had they gone 3-3 in those games they would've been a 7-4 team, which probably would've been more reflective of their actual performance.

Now the Holtz to Davie handoff: 1996 (Holtz) Yards per rush: 5.2 Yards per pass: 8.5 Yards vs. rush: 3.1 Yards vs. pass: 5.7 1997 (Davie) Yards per rush: 4.1 (-1.1) Yards per pass: 6.8 (-1.7) Yards vs. rush: 4.5 (-1.4) Yards vs. pass: 6.4 (-0.7)

The dropoffs in all four areas (and large dropoffs at that) were certain indicators that disaster had arrived, and it had. Davie very nearly managed to duplicate Ara's impact, but in the other direction. But really, the drop from an 8-3 to a 7-6 record considerably understated Davie's negative impact. In truth, Holtz's 1996 team was probably better than its 8-3 record and Davie's 1997 7-6 team was worse than its record.

Let's consider recent successful coaching changes at another school. Stoops took over Oklahoma in 1999 and went 7-5 his first year, an improvement from the 5-6 the previous year. Here are how the indicators stack up: Oklahoma 1998 Yards per rush: 3.8 Yards per pass: 6.7 Yards vs. rush: 3.1 Yards vs. pass: 7.1 1999 Yards per rush: 3.9 (+0.1) Yards per pass: 6.9 (+0.2) Yards vs. rush: 3.1 (0.0) Yards vs. pass: 6.9 (+0.2)

Although the improvement was slight, Stoops had OU pointed in the right direction even without a tremendous improvement in the record -- that came the next year, when OU went 13-0 on the way to the national championship.

Now, how about Willingham's first year at Stanford? 1994 (Walsh) Yards per rush: 3.7 Yards per pass: 8.0 Yards vs. rush: 4.4 Yards vs. pass: 7.8 1995 (Willingham) Yards per rush: 3.9 (+0.2) Yards per pass: 7.6 (-0.4) Yards vs. rush: 4.3 (+0.1) Yards vs. pass: 6.3 (+1.5)

Willingham at Stanford in his first year, like Holtz and Stoops in their first years at N.D. and O.U. respectively, managed to get three of the four indicators pointed the right way, and the fall off in the other one was not worrisome. In Willingham=s case, the only negative was that yards per pass fell from 8.0 to 7.6, but the latter number was still excellent.

So, where does that leave us after the Maryland game? One game is clearly too small of a sample to make any conclusive judgments, but the signs are very good. In Davie's last year N.D. averaged 3.9 per rush, 5.1 per pass (the worst figure in Division I-A football), 3.5 yards allowed per rush and 6.9 yards allowed per pass. Three of the four figures improved hugely in the first game from last year's season average.

Yards per pass improved by 3.3, yards allowed per rush improved by 2.7 and yards allowed per pass improved by 3.6. Yards per rush fell, however, by about a yard. In fairness, though, N.D.'s rushing attack got off to a very slow start last year before ending at the adequate figure of 3.9.

N.D. averaged only 1.5 per carry against Nebraska, 3.6 against Michigan St. and 2.1 against Texas A&M. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that N.D. will hold its opponents for the entire season to 0.8 per rush and 3.3 per pass. If it does, it will almost certainly go down in history as the greatest defense in modern college football.

Consider, for example, that Oklahoma's and Miami's defenses on their national championship teams of 2000 and 2001 each allowed identical figures of 3.1 per rush and 5.2 per pass.

Notre Dame is off to a very good start, about that there can be no question. But there are at least 11 games left and each one will tell us more about where the Irish stand. Top Stories