Clearly, therefore, N.D. is vastly improved. The performance on offense, however, has not been exactly artistic on a consistent basis, which may leave N.D. fans with the question: "How are the Irish doing it?"
A particularly tempting analogy might be to N.D.'s 9-3 2000 squad, which, like the current squad, was heavily positive on the turnover margin and produced one of Davie's two 9-win seasons. Closer examination reveals, however, that the 2002 version of the Irish are functioning on a much higher level than the 2000 squad.
The most revealing statistics in football are per-play averages. Often fans and commentators focus on total yardages for games, but these are often misleading. Consider the following scenario: Stanford kicks off to Notre Dame and the Irish return the kick for a touchdown. N.D. then kicks off to Stanford, which takes a touchback and starts at the 20. Stanford then moves the ball to N.D.'s 40, when the Irish intercept a pass and run it back to the Stanford 20. Two plays and N.D. drives in for the touchdown to make it 14-0. N.D. kicks off and Stanford tries to return it, but there's a block in the back call and Stanford has to start at its own 10. Stanford drives to the N.D. 20, where the drive stalls and the Cardinal tries a field goal, which is blocked and returned to midfield. A crisp 6-play drive gets N.D. into the endzone to make the score 21-0. At this point, Stanford has 110 total yards and N.D. 70, yet N.D. deservedly leads the game by three touchdowns. Good special teams play and a positive turnover margin are the enemy of accumulating yardage, but the friend of winning football games.
Much more accurate measures of a team's efficiency are per-play averages, because they tell you how effectively a team is performing on each snap. Not surprisingly, successful football teams both rush and pass better than their opposition. At this point in the season, N.D. is rushing for 3.17 yards per play and holding the opposition to 2.57 yards per play, so N.D. is +.60 per rush play. N.D. is passing for 6.98 yards per attempt and the opposition is throwing for 5.78 yards per attempt, so N.D. is +1.20 per pass attempt.
If one looks back over the history of Notre Dame's teams from 1960 forward (42 seasons not including this one), one finds that if N.D. both out-rushes and out-passes the opposition on a per play basis, it wins on average 8.9 games per 12. If N.D. is only better in one of the two categories, the win rate drops to 7.4 per 12. If N.D. is worse in both categories, its win rate is a meager 3.7 per 12 games.
Now, of course, the margins have quite a bit to do with it. In years in which N.D. outrushes the opposition by less than .50 yards per play and outpasses the opposition by less than 1.00 yards per play, the win rate is a modest 7.5 per 12 games. N.D. teams that have broken the .50/1.00 barrier, as the 2002 team has done thus far. win a much more impressive 9.7 per 12 games. On the other hand, N.D.'s most impressive teams have generally achieved margins of at least 1.00 per rush and 2.00 per pass, which are levels that the 2002 team has not posted so far.
Consider the N.D. teams that have either won, or come close to winning, the national championship since 1960, beginning in reverse chronological order with 1993:
Rush margin: +2.1
Pass margin: + 4.1
Rush margin: +2.1
Pass margin: +2.4
Rush margin: +1.6
Pass margin: +2.6
Rush margin: +1.9
Pass margin: +2.1
Rush margin: +3.1
Pass margin: +2.5
Rush margin: +1.3
Pass margin: +4.4
Rush margin: +2.4
Pass margin: +3.5
Rush margin: +2.1
Pass margin: +3.5
There's nothing unusual about N.D. with regard to achieving good margins in national championship or near national championship years. Last year's national champion Miami was +2.2 per rush and +2.9 per pass. Last year's runner-up Oregon was a bit more modest +1.9 per rush and +0.6 per pass. Colorado, the team that many argued should face Miami, was +1.0 per rush and +1.6 per pass. Oklahoma in 2000 was also a bit more modest +0.6 per rush and +2.2 per pass, but still ahead of the current N.D. team thus far.
So thus far, N.D.'s 2002 team is not yet in the same league with these teams. In fairness, though, N.D.'s 2002 team has played four games against quality opponents. All four of them were bowl teams last year, all three of the Big 10 opponents were generally picked to finish in the upper half of the conference, and Michigan and M.S.U. were generally both picked among the top 3 in the Big 10.
By the end of the year, for example, the 1993 N.D. team had faced Northwestern, a weak version of M.S.U., a Colleto-coached Purdue team, one of Walsh=s worst Stanford teams, a weak Pittsburgh team and Navy. The 2001 edition of Miami rolled to huge margins over Troy St., Temple, Rutgers and West Virginia. Last year's Oregon team feasted on California, Utah State and Arizona State before the year was over and the 2001 Colorado team rolled over San Jose St., Kansas and Missouri. The 2000 Oklahoma team padded its statistics against UTEP, Arkansas St., Rice, Kansas and Baylor. Games like this give a team an opportunity to roll up big margins, and the 2002 Irish haven't had those chances yet.
Now, even if N.D.'s decent +.6 per rush and +1.2 per pass margins don't improve over the course of the year, it's clear already that this team is no statistical cousin of the 2000 team. N.D.'s 2000 team was +.6 per rush, but was actually negative .9 per pass (the pass defense in 2000 was very poor, allowing almost 7.8 per attempt, compared with the 5.8 per attempt this year). Further, N.D.'s 7-game win streak in 2000 came against very weak opposition; of the 7 teams in that stretch only West Virginia (7-5) finished the year with a winning record, and pushing then-#1 Nebraska into overtime didn't seem like quite an accomplishment in retrospect given that Nebraska finished the year 9-2 and played in the Alamo Bowl. That game, by the way, remains the only time that a Solich-coached Nebraska team has won a road game against a ranked opponent.
Moreover, the 2002 N.D. team is performing better than a couple of major bowl teams N.D. fans probably remember fondly as pleasant surprises. Devine's 9-1-1 1980 Sugar Bowl squad (which lost a tough game in New Orleans to national champion Georgia) was +.9 per rush and only +.1 per pass. Holtz's 9-2 1995 squad (which lost a heartbreaking Orange Bowl to F.S.U.) was only +.2 per rush and +1.2 per pass.
Notre Dame is not a fluke. They have been better than their opponents in the most fundamental senses. They have a ways to go, however, before they are a national championship caliber team. Improvement, however, is certainly possible, and is probably necessary in their rushing offense, in particular. Even at their current levels, however, they have the statistical look of a major bowl team.