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Football: Easy pickings

Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Saturday’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma was the first Irish defeat in Notre Dame Stadium in almost two years, but it was all too familiar in one sense.

The No. 22 Irish (3-2) lost the turnover battle to the No. 14 Sooners (4-0), throwing three interceptions and failing to take the ball away. Two of Notre Dame’s turnovers against Oklahoma – both interceptions thrown by Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees – came in the opening 1:10 and gave the visiting team a quick 14-0 lead.

“Trying to overcome those two crucial turnovers in the first half, the three in total, but obviously the interception return and certainly the interceptions in the first half were crucial,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “You spot a great team like Oklahoma 14 points, you’re putting yourself in a tough situation.”

The final giveaway came in the red zone late in the second quarter, when Rees tried to squeeze a pass into a zone occupied by senior tri-captain and receiver TJ Jones, junior receiver DaVaris Daniels and three Sooner defenders.

“DaVaris may have been a little bit too deep on his route; I may have been a yard or two shallow,” Jones said. “You add him too deep, me a yard short, and that’s a cluster. So just not really paying attention to detail.”

Rees did not let himself off the hook, however.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” he said. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.

“As a quarterback, I take full accountability. If things aren’t run the way they need to be, you have to erase the play and get a zero on it. That’s my job to kind of make sure that happens, so I take accountability for it.”

Through five games this season, the Irish own a turnover margin of -2. Rees has thrown five interceptions on the year and Notre Dame has lost one fumble, while the defense has collected three interceptions and one fumble recovery. As it is with most teams, ball protection and preserving a positive turnover margin has been a point of emphasis under Kelly. Almost halfway through his fourth season at the helm of the Irish, how has Kelly done in coaching his teams to success in the turnover battle?

Overall, in the 44 games Kelly has coached the Irish, Notre Dame is 18-1 when winning the turnover battle and 4-0 when coming out even. When they give the ball away more than their opponent, the Irish are 9-12.

In his debut season in 2010, Notre Dame threw 16 interceptions and lost eight fumbles while intercepting 18 passes and recovering seven fumbles. The Irish finished the season at 8-5 with a turnover margin of +1. 

The 2011 season represented a monumental step backward in the turnover area, at least based on the most evident statistics. The defense only managed to take the ball away 14 times (eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries), while the offense committed 29 turnovers. Rees threw 14 of Notre Dame’s 17 interceptions during the year, and the Irish lost 12 fumbles.

In 2012, Irish swung the turnover margin the other way, as Notre Dame’s defense powered a title-game run with 23 takeaways. Former linebacker Manti Te’o came down with seven interceptions and recovered a pair of fumbles while the unit finished with 16 picks and seven fumble recoveries. The offense also had a banner year protecting the ball, throwing only eight interceptions and losing seven fumbles. The Irish finished +8 in the turnover margin.

Despite Notre Dame’s turnover struggles so far this year, the team’s two-turnover deficit is still the second-best margin of Kelly’s Irish squads. Through the first five games of last season the Irish were up nine in the turnover column, but they had been nine in the hole in 2011 and had a deficit of four in 2010 over the same stretch.

Obviously, if the Irish are to improve upon their turnover margin in the remaining seven regular-season games, both the offense and defense can contribute. At this point in the season in 2012, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s unit had taken the ball away 13 times compared to only four this season. Rees has thrown an interception on 3.0-percent of his pass attempts this season, below his career interception rate of 3.7-percent, but well above Everett Golson’s rate of 1.9-percent from last season.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu