We Notre Dame fans are a tough bunch to please. On the heels of the first 4-0 start in South Bend since 2002, Irish fans are expressing growing angst over the production of the offense, led by redshirt freshman QB, Everett Golson. It’s an understandable concern. After four games, Notre Dame ranks 95th (out of 124 teams) in total offense, 76th in scoring offense, 84th in rushing offense and 85th in passing offense. Take out some of the gaudier numbers put up against Navy, and those already dreadful rankings turn downright ugly. Clearly it’s time to go into full-blown panic mode, right? Not necessarily.
In every promising Notre Dame season, comparisons are inevitably made to the ’88 national champions, and this season has been no exception. While most of those comparisons are of the favorable variety, I’ve yet to see anyone bring up the offensive difficulties the Irish had during that championship run, or how closely they resemble 2012.
Tale of the Tape
First things first in drawing up an analysis of this variety: strength of schedule comparison. Obviously, if the level of competition the two teams are facing isn’t at least similar, the argument goes out the window. Luckily for us, the first four games of both the 1988 and 2012 seasons look pretty comparable.
Here’s how the two seasons line up:
|#9 Michigan (prior season: 8-4)||At Navy (5-7)|
|At Michigan State (prior season: 9-2-1)||Purdue (7-6)|
|Purdue (prior season: 3-7-1)||At #10 Michigan State (11-3)|
|At Stanford (5-6)||#18 Michigan (11-2)|
Right out of the gate, 2012 gains an advantage by featuring two teams ranked at the time of the game. The 1988 Michigan State team was ranked #15 to start the year, but dropped their first game, 27-13 to Southern Cal, and fell out of the rankings the week they met the Irish.
In addition, the combined previous season records of the teams ’88 Notre Dame played was 25-19-2 (.565), whereas this year’s ND squad faced a slate which went 36-18 (.667). Now, of course, the way a team finished one season is no guarantee of how they’ll perform the next (case in point: 2006 and 2007 ND squads), but it’s at least generally something of a guide as to the way the program was trending at the time. With that in mind, the 2012 schedule is again more formidable.
So how do the two teams square up statistically? As it turns out, through the first three games, they’re nearly identical. The average score through the first three games of 1988: 30-9; this year, it’s 30-10 (and both seasons featured identical 20-3 wins at Michigan State). Now, the fourth game is what really separates the two as Notre Dame crushed Stanford in ’88, 42-14, and this year they snuck by Michigan, 13-6, which causes the ’88 squad to pull ahead, 33-10 versus 26-9. Even still, a touchdown’s difference is not that outrageous considering the 1988 team was being led by a QB in Tony Rice who had taken the majority of snaps for an 8-4 bowl team the previous season, and this year’s team has Everett Golson getting his first snaps of live game action at the collegiate level.
Overall, including the Fiesta Bowl, the 1988 Notre Dame team would average a hair under 33 ppg. The team’s offensive production that year: 388 ypg (258 rushing ypg, 130 passing ypg.). Currently, the Irish are averaging 351 ypg (140 rushing ypg, 211 ypg), so not that far off. The interesting thing is that the Irish offense didn’t get that much more productive as the year went on. Their highest output from a points perspective was the 54 they scored against Rice in Game #9, but the second and third highest point totals came in Weeks 3 (52) and 4 (42), against Purdue and Stanford, respectively. One could argue that the level of competition increased over the course of the year, and to a point, that’s true (though Michigan did end up a 9-2-1 Rose Bowl team). What that line of argument ignores, however, is how inconsistent the offense was throughout 1988. Yes, they beat a tough slate, but they also floundered against a Navy team which would go 3-8 (22 points) in Game #8 and at home against a Penn State team which ended 5-6 (21 points) in Game #10. So, if ND was this erratic on offense, how did they win a national championship? Very simple: relentless defense.
The Defense Never Rests
Much as has been the case this year, the 1988 team’s defense was the most important key to success. For the year, they allowed just 13 ppg, limiting four teams to single digit scores. They also held opponents to under 300 total yards per game (280), with paltry amounts allowed both in the air (168 ypg) and on the ground (112 ypg). Thus far, the Irish defense has been similarly impressive. In their first four games, they are allowing 9 ppg and 292 ypg (113 rushing ypg and 179 passing ypg). If the defense can maintain numbers which are anything near these, it will allow plenty of time for this offense to develop over the year.
Though the numbers on both sides of the ball are very similar, I am not suggesting Notre Dame will be hoisting a national championship trophy at the end of the 2012 season as they did at the end of 1988. What I am saying is that even one of the best teams in the history of the program had its share of offensive struggles during the course of the year, and that this team is not that far off from the production levels of that group. Notre Dame’s offense will get better this year. We will probably not see an increasingly upward trend week after week, but you’ll start to see explosive moments and games from the group. This means one week they’ll score 40+ and the next they’ll be back to the mid-20’s. That’s to be expected from a group being led by a talented, but inexperienced QB. My advice to Irish fans is be patient, keep perspective and, if the team is winning, don’t stress yourself out too much.