I'll begin by repeating my mantra that the most crucial statistics, other than wins and losses, are per-play statistics. A review of N.D. teams since 1960 bears this out.
In the 42 seasons since 1960 (not counting the current one), Notre Dame has won a little over 69% of its games, which translates to 8.37 wins per 12-game season. Let's look at what achieving certain per-play thresholds defensively has meant to Irish hopes.
First, let's look at rushing and passing separately and how they correlate to N.D.'s win rate projected to a 12-game season.
Rushing yards per play allowed
2.75 or less: 9.9
2.76 to 3.24: 9.0
3.25 to 3.75: 6.9
3.76 or more: 7.2
Passing yards per play allowed
6 or less: 9.6
6 to 7: 6.9
7 to 8: 7.6
8 or more: 6.8
Interestingly, each defensive statistic breaks down, by itself, past a certain point. For rushing it's about 3.25 yards per carry and for passing its about 6 per pass. But let's consider what happens if we look for correspondence between them. In general, it would seem that achieving reasonably good levels in both areas would be better than being great in one and terrible in another. If, for example, a team can't play good run defense, that team is likely to see a heavy diet of rushing plays by the opposition and playing good pass defense will become useless.
Let's consider first a very modest constraint: years in which N.D. has held the opposition to 3.75 yards or less per carry AND held the opposition to 7 yards or less per pass. There is nothing remarkable about either of these levels. N.D. has held the opposition to 3.75 or less per carry in 37 of the 42 years (Davie has the dubious honor of having missed this target in 2 of his 5 years: 1997 and 1999). N.D. has held the opposition to 7 or less yards per pass in 35 of the 42 years (Davie also missed this one twice: 1999 and 2000; Faust, by contrast, never missed either of these levels in his 5 years). The correspondence of these two levels takes N.D.'s win rate to 8.53 games per 12.
Suppose we were to turn it up a half-notch and look at years in which N.D. has held the opposition to 3.25 yards or less per carry and 7 yards or less per pass. Now the win rate starts to look pretty good: 9.6 wins per 12 games.
If we move the dial one more click to years in which N.D. has held the opposition to 3.25 or fewer yards per carry and 6 yards or fewer per pass, the win rate starts to look very good — now it's at 10.3. In fact, at these levels, we start to see the formula for a national championship. There are some very familiar teams on the list of defenses that have accomplished this feat: Ara's 9-1 1964 team, his 1966 national championship team, his 1970 Cotton Bowl champion, his 1973 national champion team, his 1974 Sugar Bowl champion team, Devine's 1977 national championship team, Holtz's 1988 national championship team and both of his #2 teams: 1989 and 1993. No team N.D. to achieve these thresholds have ever finished worse than 8-3. No Faust or Davie team appears on this list.
So, how does the 2002 team stack up? Currently, N.D. is allowing 5.8 per pass and 2.5 per pass, levels that have been sufficient to virtually assure that N.D. is at least a major bowl caliber team, and could make it a national championship team if the other elements (principally offensive production and turnover margin) are present. As things now stand, the turnover margin is sufficient but the offensive production is not yet. Let's look at how these levels stack up with national championship or near national championship teams at N.D. in the past:
2002 (7-0) Yards per rush: 2.5 Yards per pass: 5.8
1993 (11-1) Yards per rush: 3.0 Yards per pass: 5.9
1989 (12-1) Yards per rush: 3.0 Yards per pass: 5.5
1988 (12-0) Yards per rush: 3.1 Yards per pass: 5.8
1977 (11-1) Yards per rush: 2.2 Yards per pass: 5.6
1973 (11-0) Yards per rush: 2.1 Yards per pass: 5.3
1970 (10-1) Yards per rush: 2.6 Yards per pass: 4.6
1966 (9-0-1) Yards per rush: 1.9 Yards per pass: 5.9
1964 (9-1) Yards per rush: 2.0 Yards per pass: 6.0
Interestingly, the current defense is better in these departments than any of Holtz's national championship or near-national championship years, except that the 1989 team was a little better on yards per pass attempt, though not as good on the rushing side.
As one goes further back in time, more dominant numbers become evident. The 1977 team, though remembered by many for its offensive heroics, had a stifling defense. Ara's 1966 team (which allowed only 38 points for the season) held opponents to an almost unbelievable 1.9 per carry.
These very low figures of the 1960's and 1970's are probably not realistic targets anymore, however, because scholarship limits have done much to distribute the talent more evenly between programs. Let's compare, however, the 2002 defense with the defenses of the last two national championship teams. In 2001, Miami gave up 3.1 per rush and 5.2 per pass and in 2000 Oklahoma gave up identical averages. So, N.D.'s defense is certainly in the same league with — and is arguably better than — either of those two.
Of course, offense plays a large role too in determining whether a team is of national championship caliber, and all of these teams had more impressive offensive figures than does N.D. thus far. N.D.'s offensive numbers are, however, moving the right direction and currently the Irish average just over 3.8 per carry and 6.4 per pass. Oklahoma's 2000 team averaged 3.7 per rush and 7.7 per pass. If N.D.'s running game continues to improve, it could reach the stage where the rushing averages are strong enough to offset the decent, but not stellar, passing figures.
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