Numbers Don't Lie

Not that Irish fans need stats to prove it, but the numbers show that Notre Dame is a much different team in 2008 than it was a year ago. The Irish have shown drastic improvement in several statistical categories and are back in the star-making business.

The exact moment can be debated, but it is clear that Notre Dame has proved this year's outfit is a much different from last year's. Whether it was established in week one, two or some time after, one thing is clear, it happened.

It is undeniable to anyone who has followed the Irish that this year's Notre Dame team has more in common with the 2005 and 2006 teams than the 2007 unit and the numbers prove it.

The Irish offense has improved from dead last in the country in total yards (242.3 per game) in 2007 to 45th nationally (385.29) through seven games in 2008. While the Notre Dame rushing attack got a big boost from its 252-yard game against Washington, the Irish are ranked 91st in the nation (122.7), but still much better from last year's 115th-ranked unit (75.3).

It's easy to see that Jimmy Clausen is a different player as a sophomore than he was as a rookie and the stats back that up. With a healthy quarterback, the Notre Dame passing offense has jumped from 110th (167.0 yards) a year ago to 20th nationally (262.6). Notre Dame rates 40th in pass efficiency (135.96) after placing 113th (111.78) in 2007.

One reason for the improvement is pass protection. After setting an all-time NCAA record by allowing 58 sacks last season, Clausen has been sacked just 11 times through seven games this year, 43rd in the country. The newly high-powered offense has translated into points with the Irish improving by more than 10 points from a 16.4 average to 26.6, moving up from 116th nationally to 59th.

Like Corwin Brown said about the defense before the Washington game, the good thing about the offense is that it has plenty of room to get better and that is across the board. Clausen can be more consistent with his decision-making, the offensive line can build on its run-blocking effort against the Huskies and the backs need to continue to play like they did in Seattle.

Notre Dame has converted 38 of 95 third downs (40%), 60th in the country, up from last year's 111th ranking (31.1%), but still not good enough.

The Notre Dame staff knows where progress needs to be made and it has already begun.

The Irish rank last nationally in red zone offense, converting just 16 of their 26 trips inside opponents' 20 (61.5%) in to points. But after failing on eight of their first 12 red zone trips this season, the Irish have scored on 12 of their last 14 and the only two times they were stopped came late in the fourth quarter against Stanford.

The improvements on defense have not been as extreme, mainly because there was not as much room to get better, but there have been some.

Notre Dame was second in the country in passing yards allowed last year with 161.2 per game, but that number was skewed because teams did not need to throw against the Irish in 2007. Notre Dame has given up an average of 212.3 passing yards through seven games this year, 68th nationally, but the Irish are 25th in pass efficiency defense after finishing 22nd last year.

Notre Dame is slightly better at getting to the quarterback this year, but still need more sacks. Brown's unit is averaging 1.57 sacks per game this year (83rd in the country) after getting 1.5 sacks last year (96th). Despite the increase of pressure defensively, Notre Dame is ranked 113th in the country in tackles for a loss, identical to their ranking at the end of 2007. The Irish registered a season-high four sacks against Washington and that pressure will need to show up in the final five games.

The biggest area of improvement for Notre Dame's defense has been in run defense. The Irish were burned for an average of 195.4 rushing yards in 2007 (96th in the country), but are giving up just 120.5 this year (41st). Although like last year's passing numbers, this season's run statistics are a bit slanted because of the opponents.

Notre Dame is down two spots nationally in total defense from 41 to 39, but the Irish are giving up 332.9 total yards through seven games after allowing an average of 357 last year. And just like the offense, the Notre Dame defense is better where it matters most, allowing 10 fewer points per game than it did last year. Opponents averaged 28.8 points against Notre Dame in 2007, but are scoring just 18.7 this year.

The Irish offense needs to take better care of the ball after turning it over 15 times through the first seven games, but the defense needs to create more than the 14 takeaways that it has.

For the most part, the Notre Dame special teams units have been solid this year. The Irish sport the top-ranked kickoff coverage team, allowing just 16.3 yards per kick return after giving up 22.7 in 2007, 89th in the country.

The punt coverage unit is a bit better, allowing 6.4 yards, down a yard from 2007. The kickoff return team is up more than a yard from 19.7 to 21.1, but the punt return unit is down a yard and a half, from 9.1 to 7.4.

The field goal kicking has been the largest area of concern for most fans, but just like the red zone offense and the quarterback pressure, Brandon Walker has shown evidence that he is coming out of the funk. Walker started the season just 1 of 7 on field goals, but he has converted on his last three kicks.

While Notre Dame has not quite made it back in the minds of many national pundits, there is no denying that the success of the Irish is turning some of their players into household names.

Last year, Notre Dame had four individual players rank in the top 100 of four statistical categories. Through seven games in 2008, the Irish have six players in the top 100 of 13 different categories.

Last year, Trevor Laws and Joe Brockington tied for 41st and 52nd respectively among the nation's top tacklers. Geoff Price was 34th in the country in punting average and Tom Zbikowski was 33rd in the punt return yards.

After this week's game, Clausen is 26th in the country in total offense and 37th in pass efficiency. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd are tied for 92nd with 4.4 receptions per game and Tate is 37th in receiving yards with Floyd 43rd.

Armando Allen is tied for 81st in the kickoff return average while Tate is tied for 87th. Allen is 38th nationally in all-purpose yards with Tate ranking 69th. Allen's 9.4 punt return average would be 48th in the country, but he is two returns short of being eligible to be ranked.

Defensively, Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton are tied for 42nd and 66th respectively in tackles and Bruton's two interceptions have him tied for 76th in the country. Punter Eric Maust's 41.7 yard average would place him 46th on the national list, but like Allen, he is two punts shy of being eligible.

The national media may not be ready to recognize Notre Dame's return to prominence, but it is clear they will have to eventually. Exactly when is, at least in part, up to the Irish.


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