Three games into the 2008 season, we are starting to get answers to some of our preseason questions. Has the team improved from last season? Absolutely. Is the team as good as it needs to be? No way. Is it exceeding expectations? Well, that depends on your expectations.
There seems to be a lot of hand-wringing over the loss to Michigan State, but the fact is that the Irish are 2-1. Repeat that three more times, and the team is 8-4 with a likely trip to the Gator Bowl. While 8-4 would be a disappointment for championship caliber teams, this year's Irish squad was never expected to go all the way. Picking up 5 games in the win column over last season would show definite improvement, and would set the team up for a very good year in '09.
Last season, the team riddled itself with hundreds of small mistakes (sacks, penalties, drops, missed assignments, etc.), which compounded into a season to forget. These smaller miscues can sometimes be overcome or discounted with a subsequent great play (see: Golden Tate's 22-yard rescue on 3rd and 17 against Michigan State). But this season, the games thus far seem to be hinging on larger, game-changing mistakes, as is typical of most football teams when playing close-to-evenly matched opponents.
Major mistakes either directly cost the team points or create a substantial field position advantage for the opponent. A good candidate list for these major mistakes are drive-ending plays that do not improve field position: turnovers, missed field goals, and failed fourth down conversions.
Pat has been following the team's progress at eliminating mistakes overall (via MOE) by the '08 Irish, and despite the results last Saturday, the team is playing much better this year. The minor mistakes (sacks, penalties, missed assignments, etc.) seem to have been addressed well in the offseason, which means that major mistakes are now determining the outcomes:
|Turnovers||4th Downs Missed||Missed FG|
|by ND||by Opp||by ND||by Opp||by ND||by Opp|
|San Diego State||4||2||1||1||1||0||-3|
Probably the best omen for this young season was ND losing the mistake battle to San Diego State (-3) and still winning the game. During both the 18-point win over Michigan and 16-point loss to Michigan State, the winning team made five fewer major mistakes than the loser, so it is difficult to really assess how well the Irish are playing at this point. We certainly aren't good enough to repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot against average competition and still win, but we can win with an extraordinary number of miscues by the competition (which is how we beat UCLA last season - a +8 difference in errors, led by 7 turnovers).
So the message for this Irish team is one we've heard over and over: eliminate mistakes. We are at least slightly better than the next six opponents on our schedule, but not good enough to overcome big mistakes. How many we commit will go a long way to determining the outcome for this season.