Right on schedule

<P>Of course, the Boston College loss stings. It stings, in particular, because it seems likely that had N.D. only lost the turnover battle 3-1 or so (instead of 5-1) that N.D. probably would've won the game. Although B.C. had a slight edge rushing (about 3.1 per carry to 3.0), N.D. had a large advantage in the per pass department (6.0 to 3.8). </P>

The team with the edge in per-play statistics will usually win the game, unless it substantially loses the turnover battle, which is exactly what happened to N.D. Moreover, most of N.D.'s turnover (and near-turnovers) were unforced errors; Irish backs just simply dropped the ball several times.

Oh well. N.D. clearly has a great deal yet to play for this year. An 11-1 finish will essentially guarantee the Irish a spot in a B.C.S. bowl, with an outside shot (emphasize "outside") of playing in the Fiesta Bowl. 10-2 makes a B.C.S. bowl about an even-money proposition.

But now's a good time to step back and take a little bit longer view. In 1964, 1986 and 2002 N.D. football appeared to be in serious trouble. Each time N.D. had suffered a losing season the year before and had been outscored in total points for the year (a rarity for the Irish), prompting the hires of Ara, Holtz and Willingham respectively. And, of course, N.D. won the national championship in Ara's and Holtz's third years.

Let's consider their respective transitions. Here are the vital statistics their transitions (+ in the per-play statistics indicates improvement by N.D.).

1963 (Devore)

Record: 2-7

Point Differential: -51
Yards per rush: 3.2
Yards per pass: 5.2
Yards vs. rush: 3.7
Yards vs. pass: 6.6

1964 (Ara)

Record: 9-1
Point Differential: +210
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)

1985 (Faust)

Record: 5-6
Point differential: -4
Yards per rush: 3.7
Yards per pass: 6.8
Yards vs. rush: 3.5
Yards vs. pass: 6.7

1986 (Holtz)

Record: 5-6
Point Differential: +80
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)

2001 (Davie)

Record: 5-6
Point Differential: -1
Yards per rush: 3.9
Yards per pass: 5.1
Yards vs. rush: 3.5
Yards vs. pass: 6.9

2002 (Willingham)

Record: 8-1
Point differential: +77
Yards per rush: 3.7 (-0.2)
Yards per pass: 6.5 (+1.4)
Yards vs. rush: 2.6 (+0.9)
Yards vs. Pass: 5.9 (+1.0)

By way of comparison, in Davie's first year (1997), N.D. showed substantial drops (more than a full yard on average) in all four of the per-play categories and the Irish went from a point differential of +226 in Holtz's last year to +17, and — as we know — the record fell from 8-3 to 7-6.

In any event, the Boston College loss does nothing to obscure the remarkable improvement of N.D. thus far. Statistically, Willingham's improvement curve is not as spectacular as Ara's, but Ara's will probably never be repeated (indeed it may never have been equaled in the history of college football). Ara's day, of course, pre-dated limits on scholarships, which made for fewer competitive games. N.D.'s untapped talent and Ara's genius allowed for the Irish to roll to huge margins in every department even after appearing hapless the prior year.

In most respects, Willingham's transition more resembles Holtz's, except that Willingham's has been even more successful. The 5-6 record earned by Holtz's 1986 team obscured partially that real improvement had taken place. The dramatic improvement in record this year as opposed to the lack of improvement in that department in 1986 is primarily a function of play in close games. In 1986 the Irish were 1-5 in games decided by 7 or fewer points, while this year N.D. is 3-1 in such games (4-1 if one extends it to 8-point games to catch the Pittsburgh win).

But, in per-play yardage differentials, Willingham seems destined to make a considerably larger impact than did Holtz. Indeed, it seems likely that Willingham will have turned all four of the fundamental categories in the right direction by the end of the year given that Navy and Rutgers remain on the schedule and those teams are by far the weakest teams statistically on N.D.'s schedule for the year. It also seems likely that Willingham will considerably exceed the +80 scoring differential that Holtz achieved his first year, though barring some remarkable margin in the remaining games seems unlikely to approach Ara's +210.

History shows that an N.D. coach gets the boat turning in the right direction his first year that a national championship is a reachable destination.

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