Irish Making Progress

The Notre Dame football team has made marked improvement in 2008 compared to the 2007 season. At 4-2, Notre Dame has six more games left in the regular season and continues to show signs of improvement. However, they still have a ways to go in order to become a consistent and top 20 football team.

At the beginning of the 2008 season we discussed some areas that Notre Dame needed to show some improvement in order to get back to playing winning football. Early returns show that this team has made solid strides in becoming a good team, but not all areas have improved as much as they'll need to in order to become a consistent top 20 team. It's been a slow and gradual process, but we're seeing signs that this team should get there and soon.

We mentioned a number of things prior to the season that would need to be fixed in order for the Irish to play winning football. The first, and foremost, was that the Irish had to protect their quarterback better. 58 sacks was an embarrassing stat, but Irish offensive line coach John Latina certainly took that to heart and we've seen the results in his work thus far. The Irish have surrendered just nine through six games. While it's not perfect, the pass protection has certainly improved.

With some solid ground for Jimmy Clausen to throw from, the sophomore quarterback has made the most of his opportunity. Clausen tossed just seven touchdowns all last season while starting nine games. Thus far Clausen has 14 touchdown passes, and a number of others that could've been scores.

His completion percentage (61.6 percent) is up from last year (56.3 %), and he's more than doubled his yards per game average---272 yards compared to just 125 yards per game last year.

Clausen's effectiveness has also sparked a major increase in offensive production. ND is scoring nine more points per game on offense, and they're gaining over 130 more yards per game—373 to 242 yards last season.

The Irish have also improved some on the ground. ND is averaging 3.2 yards per carry compared to the 2.1 yards per carry last season, and they're finally averaging over 100 yards rushing per game, but just barely with 101 yards rushing per game. This is an area the Irish will have to improve on to take that next step into being a consistently good football team.

Other impressive and important stats are that the Irish have two receivers averaging over 15 yards per catch, which shows big-play ability. Sophomore Golden Tate is averaging 18.5 yards per catch and has four touchdowns on the season. Freshman Michael Floyd is averaging 15.8 yards per reception and also has four touchdowns on the season. Compare those numbers to last year and ND only had one player (Tate) who averaged over 15 yards per catch, and only one player who caught four touchdowns all year—Duval Kamara with four total.

One area where the Irish have really struggled is turnovers. The Irish have turned the ball over 14 times on the season, but eight of those turnovers have come in just two games—not surprisingly the two that they lost, both on the road.

Notre Dame had 25 turnovers last season, a miserable 3-9 season, and the Irish are on pace to eclipse that number this year if they continue at this pace. To give you an idea, the Irish only had 14 turnovers total in 2006 and 14 turnovers total in 2007.

The two easiest ways for the Irish to get better in the second half of the season is to stop turning the ball over, and to develop a serviceable running game. Just averaging another 40 yards per game on the ground would open up the offense to even greater heights. But, if the Irish just stop turning the ball over, they'll be a force to be reckoned with the rest of the way.

On defense we haven't seen the same kind of progress, unfortunately, but there has been some important progress to build upon. This unit plays hard, so you have to give them credit, but they'll bend and even break at times.

First, the Irish really struggled stopping the run last season. Teams averaged 195 rushing yards against ND's defense in 2007. So far that number has dropped to 136 yards in 2008. The Irish allowed 20 rushing touchdowns last season, but only have surrendered 8 thus far this season. However, 4.4 yards per carry is not a good stat for any defense.

The ND defense has played the pass fairly well as well. Last season they gave up 19 passing touchdowns on the season, but have only surrendered six this season. Teams have thrown for more yards per game than last season, but overall the pass defense has been pretty solid.

ND has improved their third down defense from 42 percent conversion last season to 37 percent so far this season. They're also allowing eight less points per game, but a lot of that would likely be due to the fact that the offense can move the ball and controls the clock better than last season.

Sacks are where the Irish really struggle. Last year was a poor year rushing the passer with only 19 sacks on the season. As mentioned, the opposition recorded 58 against Notre Dame. The Irish only have seven total sacks this season…a very poor stat. To give you an idea, TCU has 33 already this season. Oklahoma has 28. We've seen far too many average quarterbacks convert on key third downs this season because the Irish can't get solid pressure on the quarterback. This is one area they must improve quickly. However, I'm not sure this can be fixed this season.

The ND defense has also done a better job of stopping the opposition in the red zone. Last year teams scored an alarming 87 percent, with 62 percent of scores ending up in a touchdown. This year the number has dropped to 76 percent, and 52 percent have ended up being touchdowns.

However, the Irish offense has really struggled in the red zone. They're scoring just 55 percent of the time in the red zone this year, with 55 percent being touchdowns. Last season the Irish scored 74 percent of the time, with 59 percent being touchdowns. Field goal kicking has been the main problem here as the Irish are just 2-of-8 on the season, but a great offense would score touchdowns more than 59 percent of the time. For example, Oklahoma is scoring touchdowns 92 percent of the time in red zone chances thus far this season.

It's also been well documented that the Irish have been much better on special teams, especially kickoff and punt coverage, and much better in the return game as well. This improvement has been very important in winning the battle of field position.

Overall, it's obvious to see that the Irish are an improving team. They still have some noticeable problems that will need to be fixed. Limiting turnovers will go a long way in helping the Irish get over the hump, but they're going to need to get much better at running the football, stopping the run, and getting pressure on the quarterback in order to take the next big step. Solid field goal kicking will also ND get back to the top. While the progress might not be as fast as some Irish fans would like, it's clear this Irish team has made considerable progress and is very close to taking that next step to being a very good football team. Top Stories