Big Wins, Little Wins

In some respects Notre Dame's opening week performance carried with it unfortunate reminders of 2007. But there was at least one very important difference: ND won the game. The 21-13 win over spunky San Diego State was hardly a thing of beauty, but recall that last year we waited until mid October for our first "ugly" win, a 20-6 victory over UCLA where ND gained under 200 yards of offense.

Certainly, ND has a long "to do" list, a fact that nobody who watched the game can ignore. Most worrisome was probably the lack of a sustained rushing attack against a depleted SDSU defensive unit.

A few context observations about the game, however. ND was a game behind as SDSU had played a game already, which is a large factor especially in the opening week. I have been harping for years that this puts the Irish at an unnecessary disadvantage in the early going and hopefully this will be the last year we ever face that issue. Some of our early season disasters and near disasters have come in these circumstances: The 1998 loss to MSU, the 2001 opening games against Nebraska and Michigan State and the 2003 escape against WSU and then road demolition at the hands of Michigan were all early season contests in which the Irish were down at least one game to the opponent.

It's not just an ND phenomenon either. For example, in 2003 Purdue played its opener against a Bowling Green team that had already played a game. Purdue suffered a stunning upset loss at home but then proceeded to win its next 6 games including a convincing 23-10 win over the Irish, a two touchdown win over Penn State and a road victory at Wisconsin.

If you're looking for good news, however, the problem seems to be greatest when the team plays on the road and the negative effect evaporates fairly quickly. Michigan is going through a large offensive system change and is rotating quarterbacks, meaning that Clausen has probably now taken about as many "live" snaps this season as either Michigan signal caller. And the game is at home for ND. So I don't expect the week behind problem to be of nearly the magnitude this week that it was in the opener.

The other major context observation about the ND game involves turnovers. The official tally on turnovers was four for ND and two for SDSU but a more realistically tally is eight for ND and four for SDSU.

ND's four "extra" turnovers were two dead ball penalties that gave the ball back to SDSU when the Aztecs would have had to have surrendered it and the muffed and missed field goals. In the first quarter, ND extended an SDSU drive on a roughing the passer call and in the third quarter the Irish were offsides on a punt. In the first half ND missed one field goal attempt and mishandled the snap on another. Those plays have the same effect as turnovers because they changed possession without changing field position.

Thus, of 15 ND possessions six ended in de facto turnovers and ND gave SDSU two extra possessions besides that. Mistakes like that will keep any opponent in the game.

But back to that "winning" thing.

How much does the first week's performance tell us about a team? Sometimes a narrow escape is a genuine indicator that the team won't be very good, as in 1997 with the narrow win over Georgia Tech or in 2003 with the overtime escape against Washington State. Other times, however, it seems not to mean much as with the 1977 national championship team's lackluster 19-9 win over Pittsburgh or the 1993 team's uninspiring 27-12 win over Northwestern.

Starting with Dan Devine's teams in 1975, I divided opening weeks into three categorys. "Big" wins included any win by 17 or more points and any win by whatever margin over Michigan. "Little" wins were any wins that weren't big wins. And then there are losses. In those 33 seasons from 1975 through 2007, ND had 16 big wins, eight little wins and nine losses.

In the loss years, as one might expect, ND wasn't very good with a combined record of 56-47 (54.4% wins). The range was from two Devine teams that finished 9-3 (including the team that won the "Chicken Soup" Cotton Bowl after the 1978 year) and Holtz's 1995 team that nearly won the Orange Bowl to last year's 3-9 squad.

In the big win years, ND teams combined for a record of 134-54-4 (70.8% win rate). The range extended from Holtz's 1988 national championship team to Faust's 1981 squad that started with a bang by beating LSU 27-9 but finished 5-6.

In the little win years, ND teams combined for a record of 69-27 (71.9% wins). The range runs from Devine's 11-1 1977 national championship team and Holtz's 11-1 1993 near national championship team to Willingham's 5-7 2003 squad.

In other words, the big dividing line as far as opening week goes is between winning and losing. Lose and the door closes. Win and the door stays open.


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