Hansen: Sizing up Notre Dame football by the numbers

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
The Notre Dame defense lines up against the Purdue offense during ND's 27-13 win, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

SOUTH BEND — Other than Notre Dame’s continued tied-for-No. 1 status nationally in red-zone offense, there isn’t much comfort in numbers for the 12th-ranked Irish (3-0) a quarter of the way through the college football regular season.

Except, perhaps, that they have company in their mathematical misery.

Excelling in these five categories — run offense, run defense, total defense, team passing efficiency and turnover margin — remains the top indicator of teams that tend to reach the College Football Playoff and win games on that big stage.

That means a top 25-ish ranking or better out of 130 in at least four of those areas, if not all five.

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Heading into Saturday’s Shamrock Series game against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago (noon EDT; FOX), the Irish check just one of those boxes — No. 20 in turnover margin, though they’re close in team passing efficiency (27th).

However, checking in on the other three teams in last year’s CFP field — all of which are currently ranked in the top 12 of both major polls — none of them are meeting the criteria for more than two. And No. 1 Alabama is the only one of the four that is (No. 21 in passing efficiency, No. 7 in turnover margin).

AP ninth-ranked Clemson only qualifies in total defense (19th), No. 10 Ohio State in rushing offense (25th). And all four have some ugly flaws.

Alabama is No. 94 in rushing offense. Notre Dame is 115th in rushing offense — and facing the nation’s No. 1 rush defense, in Wisconsin, next. Ohio State is ranked below 90 in two categories — rush defense (101st) and total defense (118th), while Clemson is sub-90th in three — 93rd in rush offense, 98th in turnover margin, 114th in passing efficiency with DJ Uiagalelei running the show.

By The Numbers

That doesn’t mean all four will miss this year’s playoff. But if those numbers don’t get incrementally better, their current AP rankings aren’t likely to be sustainable.

That’s why the three big jumps the Irish made from Saturday’s 27-13 win over Purdue — in rush defense, total defense and turnover margin — were significant.

More of inside the numbers

Transitive scores of other games aren’t doing the Irish any favors from a perception standpoint.

After losing to Wake Forest, 35-14, on Saturday, Florida State is 0-3 for the first time since 1976 — the late Bobby Bowden’s first year as Seminoles head coach. The Irish opened the season Sept. 5 with a 41-38 overtime victory at FSU.   

Wake, meanwhile, outrushed the Seminoles (225-91), outgained them (484-317) and held an 89-51 command in offensive plays run.

Toledo (2-1), meanwhile, flopped at home to a bad Colorado State team, 22-6. The Rockets managed just 21 rushing yards on 28 attempts, didn’t reach the 300-yard mark in total offense (291) and yielded 209 rushing yards to the Rams on 49 carries.

The Irish rallied past Toledo, 32-29, in their Sept. 11 home opener.

• According to ESPN stats and info, AP top 25 teams have lost 19 games so far, the most through three weeks of any season in the poll era (1936-present). 

• Three weeks into the season, Notre Dame has one unbeaten opponent left — No. 8 Cincinnati (3-0), which will remain so, heading into their clash with the Irish Oct. 2 at Notre Dame Stadium. The Bearcats have a bye this upcoming Saturday.

• The Walter Camp Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week, junior safety Kyle Hamilton, is among the Notre Dame players at or near the top of the national rankings in individual stat categories.

With three interceptions in three games, Hamilton is in an eight-way tie for first in interceptions per game (1.0). Junior linebacker JD Bertrand moves up four spots to No. 5 in tackles per game (11.7).

Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey is tied for 11th in sacks per game (1.17), while junior running back Kyren Williams ranks 20th in all-purpose yardage (133.33).

College GameDay comes calling

The ESPN crew will set up in Chicago Saturday for its popular traveling pregame show — College GameDay.

The site chosen generally signifies the game that sits at the epicenter of the college football universe in a particular week. Saturday will be the 33rd time Notre Dame is involved.

The Irish are 14-18 all time in games in which GameDay visits, including a split of the two ND-Clemson games last season.

The Badgers are 7-12 with GameDay hovering, with Jack Coan’s last game as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback — a 28-27 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl to cap the 2019 season — the school’s most recent appearance.  

No Coan of silence this week

It’s hard to say whether QB Jack Coan is athletic enough — at least not without the Tyler Buchner tag team — to coax the Irish to the heights they’ve reached the past three seasons. But man, you’ve got to love his demeanor.

Nothing seems to rattle the grad transfer from Wisconsin, including the bright lights and the big stages.

So it should come as little surprise that he really is treating Saturday’s game against his former team, in many ways, like just another game.

Coan said after Saturday’s Purdue win that he plans on continuing to talk to his friends on the Wisconsin team throughout the week, per usual. He also plans to help offensive coordinator Tommy Rees with a scouting report.

“I went against the defense in practice for four years, so I have a general sense of what they like to do,” he said. “I never really paid attention to what they do in games and how they game plan and the way they switch things up. I’m definitely going to have to continue to study them, but also try to help out as much as I can with the game plan.”

In addition to being No. 1 in rushing defense, Wisconsin is No. 2 in total defense, 11th in scoring defense, 21st in pass-efficiency defense, and fourth in third-down defense.

Where the Badgers have struggled the most is at the quarterback position. Redshirt sophomore Graham Mertz has a 110.0 pass-efficiency rating and is 98th nationally. Coan individually is 38th at 155.5.

Coan made 18 career starts for Wisconsin and was on track to make it 19 in 2020, when he suffered a right foot injury in practice on Oct. 3 and underwent surgery four days later.

Because the Big Ten originally canceled its fall season due to COVID-19, then did an about face, the Badgers didn’t open the season until Oct. 23 and with Mertz as the starter.

Coan entered the transfer portal when the Badgers coaching staff let him know that Mertz would continue to be their No. 1 option into 2021. 

“A lot of people ask me if I’m taking this game personally and things like that,” Coan said. “Not really. There’s no reason why I should take one game more personally than the next. I just want to go out there and win this one like all the rest.

“At the end of the day, I hope the best for them. I obviously hope the best for me and this team as well.”

Military planes perform a flyover before the Notre Dame-Purdue game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Sellout-less streak continues

Saturday’s 27-13 victory over Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium marked the fourth straight home game that didn’t reach sellout status — 10 games if you count the six last season in which sellout weren’t possible due to severe COVID-restrictive limitations.

But the 74,341 fans in the 77,622-seat facility Saturday was the largest of the non-sellouts since the 46-year-old, 273-game sellout streak ended with the Navy game late in the 2019 season. The crowd was also more than 12,000 larger than the 2021 home opener with Toledo on Sept. 11 (62,009).

The Cincinnati game Oct. 2 could start a new sellout streak. ND isn't selling any more tickets to the game unless its part of a three-game mini package.


Who: No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1) 

Kickoff: Saturday at noon EDT 

Where: Soldier Field; Chicago 


Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Wisconsin by 6 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI