Notre Dame Football: Top Reasons the Irish Underachieved Their Way to 8-4
Notre Dame entered the 2011 season with high expectations from fans and analysts alike. In almost every major publication the Irish enjoyed a preseason Top 25 ranking. For instance ESPN ranked them 16th, while the coaches poll had the Irish ranked 18th. Finally, Phil Steele had the Irish ranked sixth, their highest preseason ranking.
This led to great optimism and cries of "We're back" among many fans and alumni. With a whopping 19 starters returning, a favorable schedule, solid defense and momentum from a strong finish, many had the Irish pegged for around 10 wins and a possible BCS bid. Standing at 8-4 and staring at a likely bid to the Champs Sports Bowl, I think it is reasonable to say the Irish underachieved.
There are a number of reasons the Irish came up short, and these are some thoughts as we look ahead to a bowl and the 2012 season.
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Notre Dame finished the regular season 116th in the nation in turnover margin. Only East Carolina and SMU were worse as the Irish finished the campaign -13 in turnovers.
Many fans early in the season blistered Dayne Crist for an ill-advised interception versus South Florida and the momentum-killing center exchange fumble versus USC. However, this was a team-wide problem and often surfaced at the worst possible times.
Without digging too far into my memory banks Jonas Gray, T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick all provided killer fumbles during this season. In addition, Tommy Rees despite solid play at times, had a knack for throwing interceptions and often at the worst times.
Even more disconcerting was the number of turnovers the Irish committed in the red zone. In two games, USC and South Florida, these led directly to 14-point swings on the scoreboard and greatly contributed to Notre Dame's demise.
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The Irish finished 81st in the nation in penalties per game averaging 6.5 penalties per game. How many of these were of the discipline type such as false starts or jumping offsides? Saturday Night featured an Irish team that false-started four times.
Brian Kelly coached Cincinnati teams that were often the most penalized teams in the nation during his tenure. As his teams averaged a ranking of 103rd in the nation during his tenure with the Bearcats. This is simply too many penalties, especially in close games. Penalties are a sign of undisciplined play and a lack of focus.
Incidentally, Alabama finished third and Michigan, likely BCS bound, sixth.
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When the Irish have come up short in the first two years of the Brian Kelly era, the most popular whipping boy is usually Bob Diaco. Many fans argued last season that he did not know how to stop the option attack. This is an absolutely ridiculous assertion given his experience and credentials as a Division I football coach.
What fans should be asking is what about special teams? Mike Elston's special teams unit is arguably one of the nation's worst when you consider it as a whole and you examine the numbers. The Irish are dead last (120th) in punt return average, 31st in kick return average, 58th in kick return defense, 99th in punt return defense and 104th in net punting.
When you average all of them together you have a special teams average of 82nd. This is in the bottom third of the nation. These numbers don't even include a kicker who made only 67 percent of his field goals and was even worse (60 percent) on short field goals (20-39 yards).
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All year on various message boards I've heard comments like: "No one can stop us...if we don't stop ourselves"..."If we don't turn it over we would be 2-0" (after Michigan)...
That is my main point when I make the statement that this team underachieved. On average, they outscored their opponents 35-20 yet they are 8-4? In several games it was a key turnover, a costly penalty, a failure to execute a simple pass coverage (Michigan) that beat the Irish. This was a team that time and time again beat itself with mistakes.
That is the essence of underachieving!
This team was capable of much more than it ultimately produced. Many will argue that Kelly's system needs time to jell. These weren't systemic flaws. Not being able to catch a punt, costly penalties and untimely turnovers have nothing to do with the system that Brian Kelly has implemented.
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No one here is advocating the firing of Brian Kelly or saying he is even on the hot seat. However, improvements need to be made, particularly with regard to penalties, turnovers and special teams play. Year three is often the make or break year for coaches, particularly at Notre Dame.
Next season the majority of the roster will be players that Kelly has recruited. It also appears that he has a quarterback in Andrew Hendrix who can run his offense at its maximum capacity.
Although the roster will be hit hard by graduation and possible NFL departures, there are still proven players returning. The schedule, as always, is daunting as road trips to Oklahoma, Michigan State, USC and an improved Boston College will provide a stiff challenge. In my opinion this schedule is tougher than this year's edition.
Perhaps the Irish will draw some motivation from lower overall expectations next season? It is hard to envision Notre Dame drawing a preseason ranking given the schedule and potential losses on both offense and defense.