What Notre Dame can (and can't) take away from national title game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — What Brian Kelly didn’t learn from Ohio State’s national championship mashing of Oregon on Monday night might be every bit as important for his 2015 team as what he did.

There tends to be some overreaching when it comes to every facet, every takeaway, every statistic supposedly creating an instant HiDef view into the next wave of trends in college football and a template for everyone, including Kelly at Notre Dame, to fix their own programs.

Kelly, chided at times during his first five seasons as head coach at ND for abandoning his Oregon-esque offensive tendencies (until, abruptly, Monday), knows there was lots of gray in that 42-20 OSU uprising. And that’s not referring to the color scheme in the Ohio State section of the stands at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Getting ahead of the curve, and not chasing it, is where you want to be in a sport like college football, where evolution and cycles surround tried-and-true metrics with new context, but don’t necessarily produce new metrics.

Fourth-seeded Ohio State didn’t start a revolution Monday night. It settled into the loose statistical profile of the 14 national champions that proceeded it — all except that jazz about the third-string quarterback being a star.

The Buckeyes were strong where it mattered and then some in overcoming a minus-4 differential in turnovers.

There are five metrics that show up consistently positive in every national champion’s résumé in the 2000s: Rushing offense, passing efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin.

Only twice in the 2000s, a span of 15 national titlists, has the nation’s No. 1 team at the end of the season been ranked outside the top 40 nationally in even one of those five categories. That was Oklahoma, 68th in rushing in 2000, and Auburn in 2010, as the only sub-25 team to win a title in total defense, at 60.

Compare that to the runners-up, who fell short of the 40 mark in at least one category nine times in 15 years. This Oregon team fell far short in two, and woefully so — rushing defense (60) and total defense (87).

Ohio State’s ranking line in those five metrics, from rushing offense to turnover margin, was 8-2-34-19-32 among the 125 teams in the FBS. The Alabama team that waxed ND in the 2012 title game had a stat line of 16-1-1-13 in the key metrics.

The 2012 Irish has one of the most flawed stats lines of all the champs and runners-up in the 2000s — 38-74-11-7-27.

And that brings us to the 2014 Irish: 68-30-72-71-81.

Only the No. 30 passing efficiency mark is title-game worthy, and even that’s on the edge. Among the 30 teams to reach the title game in the 2000s, only five had team pass-efficiency ratings worse than 25th, with ND’s No. 74 rating in 2012 the worst by 31 places.

If you broaden out ND’s statistical picture to include the top 16 most pertinent stat categories, including some special teams measurables, the Irish reached Kelly Era highs in five in 2014. Ironically, with all the criticism aimed at quarterback Everett Golson and offensive play-caller Kelly, four of them were offensive categories.

Those were passing efficiency (30), passing offense (18), total offense (33) and scoring offense (38). The fifth category to reach a Kelly Era high was punt returns (53).

Looking at Ohio State Monday night, it’s easy to say Notre Dame needs to be more physical and get back to its running-game roots of the coach Lou Holtz Era. But that’s only half right. That improved running game must be married to an efficient, not necessarily prolific, passing attack.

In that light, it doesn’t make Kelly’s choice at quarterback, between Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire, any more clear.

Zaire, with the better read-option skills, figures to be the better choice to improve the rushing numbers. Golson, despite his turnovers, projects as the better choice to push the No. 30 pass-efficiency rating to a better number. If he can transform his turnover tendencies, the ranking could improve dramatically.

So spring may be all about which quarterback can become the most complete package.

Both of the offensive metrics, rush offense and pass efficiency, point to the importance of an improved offensive line. And junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s decision Tuesday to put off the NFL Draft for at least another year is a great start.

But, “Do what Ohio State did on Monday night,” is a mantra that not even the Buckeyes could execute early in the season.

In a 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech that almost kept them out of the first-ever four-team playoff, the Buckeyes uncongealed offensive line labored to produce 108 rushing yards on 40 carries (and gave up seven sacks) to a decent run defense (39th).

The next four games came against run defenses ranked 107th, 85th, 97th and 106th, which helped the line gain confidence and chemistry. So from game 7 on, when they faced Nos. 3 (Penn State), 1 (Michigan State), 15 (Michigan), 23 (Wisconsin) and 4 (Alabama) in run defense, the Buckeyes were able to evolve into a dominant unit.

Notre Dame showed in its 31-28 Music City Bowl upset of favored LSU it may have the makings to do the same in 2015. But expect some tight position battles in the spring and maybe some shifting in the spots between Stanley and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Rising young talents Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars and Colin McGovern are among those who could cause a personnel shuffle.

On defense, injuries and suspensions took away some of ND’s biggest defensive stars for all or part of the season. But the sub-package philosophy that looked so strong out of the gates, started to show cracks against uptempo teams like North Carolina, even when team MVP Joe Schmidt was still healthy and playing a prominent role.

That’s not to say abandoning the sub-package concept completely is the way to go, but it’s clear ND needs more every-down players and more quality depth to have a trump card to play against the uptempo offenses.

It’s possible they’ll have both in 2015, especially if defensive end and former five-star prospect Ishaq Williams comes back and elevates his game, if recovering Jarrett Grace is part of the linebacker depth, if freshman end Jhonny Williams’ redshirt year produces a legitimate edge pass rusher, if Kelly can buttress a thin safety corps, and if repatriated cornerback KeiVarae Russell comes back as good as expected.

That’s a lot of ifs, but a lot fewer than last year, when so many of them didn’t have staying power.

Perhaps the biggest boost Ohio State’s national title provides Notre Dame is a perceptual one, that a Midwest school can overcome the weather, shifting population trends and a whole lot of doubt and rise to the pinnacle of the sport all over again.


Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will be a key figure in ND's spring practices as he tinkers and refines an Irish offensive line that struggled at times in 2014 but finished strong. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)


How the 15 college football champions and 15 runners-up in the 2000s have ranked nationally in five key metrics: rushing offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin. Champions are in bold.

Year                    RO  PE  RD  TD  TOM 

2014 Ohio State    8     2    34   19   32

        Oregon        20    1    60   87    1

2013 Florida St.    28   1     18   3     3

        Auburn         1   24    62   86   61

2012 Alabama      16   1     1     1    13

        Notre Dame38  74    11    7    17

2011 Alabama     16  35    1     1    23

        LSU            22   24    5     2     2

2010 Auburn        5    1     9    60  33

        Oregon        4  14   27    34    7

2009 Alabama    12   34   2     2      

        Texas        61   10    1     3    15

2008 Florida      10    4   15   9     2

        Oklahoma  20    1    20  68    1

2007 LSU           11   37   12   3     2

        Ohio State  28   12    3    1   76

2006 Florida       38    14  5    6   37

        Ohio State  26    8   15  12  13

2005 Texas         2      1  33   10   27

        USC            6     8   31   48   2

2004 USC          33     7    1     6    1

        Oklahoma  16    6     6    13  42

2003 LSU           27  11    3     1   39

        Oklahoma  65    4    20    3    5

2002 Ohio State31   10    3    23  10

        Miami        40    9    7     27  67

2001 Miami        21  15   40     6    1

        Nebraska     1  43   22     8   55

2000 Oklahoma  6812   23    8    30

        Florida St.   33  2    2      6    16

Here’s how Notre Dame ranked nationally at the end of the 2014 season in key statistical areas compared to national champion Ohio State and runner-up Oregon:

                                ND  OSU   Ore

Rushing offense          68     8       20

Passing offense           18    51       10

Total offense               32    9        3

Scoring offense           38      5        4

Pass efficiency             30      2        1

Sacks allowed              70     49      63

Turnover margin          81     32        1

Rushing defense           72    34      60

Pass-eff, defense          84     13      54

Total defense               71      19      87

Scoring defense            82     26      30

Sacks                          74     13      38

Tackles for loss            76     14       51

Kickoff returns            74      29      92

Punt returns                 53    18      12

Net punting                 59       5       82