It wasn’t that long ago, only a year in fact, that Notre Dame was ranked 118th out 120 FBS teams in turnover margin. The 2011 Irish stumbled and fumbled their way to 29 turnovers, while only forcing 14, in a disappointing 8-5 season.
The disappointments of Brian Kelly’s second season in South Bend now seem like a distant memory, as the 2012 Irish have made turnovers their ally. The Irish have given the ball away just 14 times in their undefeated season, while Manti Te’o’s seven interceptions are only one less than the entire team had in 2011.
Improvement in this area was not a forgone conclusion heading into the season despite quarterback Tommy Rees, the culprit of many of the team’s mistakes in 2011, being demoted to a backup role in favor of Everett Golson, who did not see the field last year.
The scouting report on Golson is that while he would make the offense far more potent and versatile, he would also make some bad decisions as he learned the intricacies of Kelly’s offense.
There were some growing pains. All you have to do is turn on the tape of the Sept. 22 game against Michigan in which Golson lasted only a quarter after two interceptions before being replaced by Rees. However, once Golson took the Irish into Norman and upset No. 8 Oklahoma, 30-13, without committing any turnovers, Kelly knew he had his guy for the long haul.
After the poor performance against the Wolverines, Golson threw just two interceptions the rest of the season. In what will never be classified as a coincidence, the Irish won every game they played and now are just two weeks away from playing for their first national title in 24 years against Alabama on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
To defeat the defending national champion and heavily-favored Crimson Tide, Notre Dame will need to use much of the recipe that has gotten it to this point. The main ingredient in this unexpected concoction has been protecting the football.
Alabama has forced over two turnovers per game on average this season. If that trend continues in South Florida, the Irish will likely be unable to knock the Tide from their perch atop the college football mountain.
Of course, Notre Dame has had multiple turnovers just four times this season and had none in its three big wins away from home against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC. The combination of Kelly putting Golson in situations where he can be effective and Golson himself learning to take what is given to him has proven to be a successful formula.
The Irish will have to take calculated risks against Alabama, but you dance with the one that brought you. The game plan will again rely heavily on the top-scoring defense in the country and the running of Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and now Golson too, who has become more of a running threat in recent weeks.
With the next game almost eight months away, there’s no need for Kelly to protect Golson from injury like he had earlier in the season.
Despite the efficiency of the Irish offense to date, I do not foresee it making it through 60 minutes in Miami without a turnover. The Tide boast arguably the best cornerback in the country in Dee Milliner and a pair of ball-hawking safeties in Robert Lester and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, who each have four interceptions on the season.
Golson can get away with more forced throws than his predecessor thanks to a stronger arm, but it’s rare for Nick Saban defense to not at least force one mistake from a first-year quarterback, at least one not named Johnny Manziel.
Will one turnover be enough to decide the game? It depends. Where on the field does it take place? In what quarter does it occur? Is there a return?
Those are unanswerable questions for now, but they’re the factors that could decide whether the turnover will haunt Irish fans for years or if it’ll simply be a blip on the way to the team’s biggest win in a quarter-century.