A year ago, Notre Dame was in the BCS National Championship. After completing an undefeated regular season against one of the toughest schedules in football, the Irish made it to Miami thanks to a stingy defense, a strong running game and a mistake-free football team that dominated the turnover battle.
The Irish will be home watching Auburn and Florida State play for this season's title. After winning 12 games, the Irish slid back to nine wins, with losses to Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt and Stanford revealing some of the fatal flaws of Brian Kelly's fourth Notre Dame squad.
A large part of the slide was due to the loss of some key personnel. In addition to having to replace quarterback Everett Golson after his spring suspension, the Irish sorely missed All-Americans Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o, their top two running backs, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, and key graduating defensive starters Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta.
But personnel changes were hardly the only problem. In addition to injuries decimating the starting lineup, a look at some of the key statistics on both offense and defense illustrate the difference between 12-1 and 9-4.
|Notre Dame Offense: 2012 vs. 2013|
|PPG||Rush Yards||Rush TDs||YPC||Pass Yards||Comp. %||Pass TDs||INTs||Sacks||3rd Down %|
There are a few striking differences between the Irish offense of 2013 and the team from 2012. The biggest is the quarterback. In Golson, Brian Kelly had a quarterback who was physically capable of executing a spread attack. In Tommy Rees, the Irish did not.
With Golson, the Irish relied more heavily on a ground game, both to utilize his running ability and to take the mental game out of his hands. The Irish ran for 25 percent fewer yards this season (1,963) than last year (2,462), and it's hard not to notice the gaping hole Golson left as the team's leading scorer on the ground, with no running back matching his touchdown total.
While the team's scoring average actually went up five percent, the teams rushing touchdowns were almost cut in half from 23 to 12. With essentially all new running backs, the team's rushing average fell from 4.9 yards per carry to 4.5. Without a steady ground game to rely on, the team's third-down conversion rate fell as well.
The Irish were far more prolific scoring touchdowns via the pass, throwing for 27 in 2013 while passing for just 14 in 2012. They did that in spite of completing just 52.6 percent of passes, down from 58.2 in 2012.
While Tommy Rees was hardly known for his downfield passing, he threw for 254.8 yards per game, up over 30 yards from the 2012 average of 222.8. Rees also tossed 13 interceptions this season, an almost 40 percent increase on last year's total of eight. But factoring in fumbles lost, the Irish offense only turned the ball over twice more than last season.
|Notre Dame Defense: 2012 vs. 2013|
|Opp. PPG||First Downs||Rush Yards||YPC||Pass Yards||Comp. %||Turnovers||Sacks||Red Zone TDs|
The Irish went from an elite team to just an above-average one mostly because the defense slipped almost across the board.
The team did lose Maxwell Award winner Manti Te'o as well as fellow starters Danny Spond, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. Notre Dame also suffered significant injuries to half of its two-deep, including All-American-caliber talents in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, and those injuries showed. The unit suffered significant regressions in just about every statistical category.
First and foremost, the Irish were easier to score on. After giving up just 12.8 points a game last year, that number jumped to 22.4, nearly a 10-point swing. The Irish gave up over 20 percent more first downs than last year, almost 40 percent more rushing yards, and after allowing a relatively stingy 3.5 yards per carry, that number jumped to 4.2 in 2013.
One of the historically tough Notre Dame rush defenses in 2012, it took until the Oklahoma game for the Irish to give up their first rushing touchdown before giving up just four on the season. This year they gave up 13, a big reason why the defense's red-zone touchdown percentage jumped from just 34 percent to 52.
Bob Diaco's defenses in South Bend haven't been known for their takeaways or sacks, but the 2012 unit put up healthy numbers. But after tallying 34 sacks in 2012, that number dropped to just 21. And after taking the football away 23 times, that number fell to 17.
After building the 2012 team's identity around a suffocating defense and a strong ground game, the offense's modest improvements weren't enough to make up for the step backward on defense. With a running attack that couldn't hold up its side of the bargain and a passing game that wasn't accurate enough to be as explosive as it needed to be, the unit's efficiency was hampered by the lack of a running quarterback.
Yet blaming the season on Tommy Rees hardly paints an accurate picture. A year after Manti Te'o led an opportunistic, ball-hawking, no-mistakes group, the 2013 defense gave up more rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, third-down conversions and red-zone scores, all contributing to a much smaller margin for error.
That razor-thin edge was seen all too frequently in the Irish's four losses, when defensive struggles against Michigan put the Irish in a shootout they couldn't win. Against Oklahoma, early turnovers and two broken plays on defense doomed Notre Dame. Against Pitt, critical fourth-quarter interceptions and a disappearing ground game gave the Irish one of their ugliest losses in years. And a decimated defense was no match for Stanford's power running game.