Notre Dame edged out Stanford on Saturday in an overtime thriller to improve to 6-0 and continue its run to a BCS bowl berth. Yet the reason the Irish could not close out the game in regulation was their relapse into issues with turnovers that haunted them a year ago.
Following the 2011 season, there were few reasons for optimism surrounding the Notre Dame football program. The team had just finished its second consecutive 8-5 season, was bidding farewell to standout seniors like Michael Floyd, R.J. Blanton and Jonas Gray, and was staring down a schedule that added trips to Oklahoma and Soldier Field to take on Miami to an already brutal schedule.
But months later, the Irish find themselves undefeated through six games with a Top-10 ranking. While Notre Dame has received great play from its defensive front, explosive playmaking from George Atkinson III and Theo Riddick, and solid performances from newcomers like Bennett Jackson, the real key to Notre Dame’s success is as simple as not turning the ball over.
Few need to be reminded of the nightmarish start to the 2011 campaign that had Irish fans watching in disbelief as South Florida’s Kayvon Webster galloped 96 yards for a touchdown after recovering a Jonas Gray fumble only four minutes into the young season.
And what seemed like a single mistake by Gray turned into the theme of the entire season as the Irish ultimately compiled 29 turnovers en route to ranking 118th in the nation in turnover margin. Notre Dame finished the season having only won the turnover battle in three out of 13 games.
But the Irish have turned the corner in 2012. Going into Saturday’s game against Stanford, the Irish ranked eighth in the country in turnover margin, having bested their opponent in that category in every game. And now, they have more takeaways in six games than they had in 13 games a year ago.
Despite this drastic improvement, Saturday showed that this could still be the Achilles’ heel of this team. While only conceding six offensive points, it was Stanford's defensive touchdown that ultimately pushed the game into overtime.
Had Notre Dame limited the turnovers as it has done the rest of the season, this overtime thriller would have taken a course more similar to the Michigan and Michigan State games a few weeks ago.
Fortunately for the Irish, their defense was too good and their offense too clutch to let these turnovers dictate the outcome of the game. If they make these turnovers just an anomaly in their season instead of a relapse into their problems of last year, this Irish team will continue to find success in 2012.