SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame stared defeat in the face on Nov. 3 last fall, but came away unscathed.
Pittsburgh's Kevin Harper lined up for a 33-yard, championship-hope-sinking field goal in double overtime. He missed. Notre Dame had Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown on the field for the miss, and both wear No. 2. A penalty should've been assessed on Notre Dame, giving Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs at the 11-yard line.
No penalty was called, and Notre Dame went on to win 29-26, clearing its path to an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship.
One word is often used to describe that sequence: Lucky.
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin isn't having any of it.
"I've heard 20,000 times, 'you gut lucky the guy missed the field goal,'" Martin said. "Like I don't even get that, because that's a moron that watched one play out of 170 plays."
A narrow point of view vs. the big picture
Harper's kick dinging off the right upright is just one of a few single plays that have been pointed to as lucky. But as Martin said, the drive that preceded Harper's kick was an example of Notre Dame getting unlucky.
On second and goal from the one-yard line, Cierre Wood dove for the end zone. Just before he was about to cross the goal line, the ball slipped out. Pittsburgh recovered it, ultimately setting up Harper for the game-winning try.
"Did they get lucky on that one?" Martin said. "Because if Cierre scores, which it's a joke he didn't, they're not even kicking a field goal."
There are a few other single plays that can be pointed to — most notably, the Irish controversially denying Stanford's Stepfan Taylor of a game-winning touchdown — as well as a spate of games decided by seven points of less.
But when Bill Connelly, a pioneer of college football advanced statistics who writes for SB Nation, Football Outsiders and recently published "Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories," ran the numbers, he found Notre Dame was just a bit lucky — certainly not to the extent he would've figured.
He paraphrased the analysis Brian Fremeau — another advanced stats guru — gave of Notre Dame in his book, roping the 2011 Irish into the equation:
"That 2011 team was probably a 10-2 team and the 2012 team was probably an 11-1 team," Connelly said. "They improved, but luck helped. Luck swung a little bit and made it a little bit bigger improvement."
That's not too far off from what one of Notre Dame's captains thinks.
"I'd say to go undefeated in the regular season there's going to be a couple situations where — I don't care what team you are — there's going to have to be some things that fall into place," offensive lineman Zack Martin said.
The Manti Te'o effect
Connelly doesn't factor turnovers into his projections and analysis given the volatility of interception and fumble stats on a year-to-year basis. Instead of looking at a team's number of interceptions and fumble recoveries, he's more focused on passes defended (interceptions plus passes broken up) and fumbles forced.
A neutral-luck team, according to Connelly, will intercept 21.9 percent of the passes it defends. In 2012, Notre Dame had 50 passes defended and 16 interceptions, a 32 percent rate. In 2011, the Irish had 49 passes defended and eight interceptions, a 16 percent rate.
That spike can be almost entirely attributed to one player: Manti Te'o.
Te'o didn't have a single interception his first three years on campus, then picked off seven — nearly unheard of from a linebacker — in 2012.
Notre Dame forced 23 turnovers in 2012, up from 14 in 2011. The offensive numbers flipped, too: In 2012, the Irish offense turned the ball over 15 times, while in 2011 that number was a season-defining 29.
Armed with a +8 turnover margin, Notre Dame was in position to go undefeated in the regular season. When asked what they key was to winning close games, plenty of Irish players pointed to just that: Avoiding turnovers on offense and forcing them on defense.
But is that sustainable?
A good example of the volatility of interceptions comes from former North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson. In 2011, Amerson defended 16 passes and picked off 12 of them, tops among FBS players. 2012 saw Amerson defend 17 passes, but he only intercepted five of them.
Think back to a few of Te'o's interceptions last year — like his tip-drill grab against Michigan, and his incredible diving pick against Oklahoma. Players with above-average ball skills can make those plays, but there's little margin for error.
"Even if Te'o came back next year, those numbers would probably revert a decent amount," Connelly said.
Notre Dame doesn't have Te'o back, but there's a belief around the defense that they're stronger as a complete unit, especially in the secondary.
Having a pair of returning starters in Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks said, helps allow the defense to utilize its entire playbook. Coaches are more comfortable calling for man-to-man coverage on the outside and having those guys press receivers — something Jackson struggled with last year due to a bum shoulder.
"One of the things I think you may see this year is passes defended, because of our veteran corners who are really, really good players," added safeties coach Bob Elliott.
Both Cooks and Elliott pointed to an elite defensive front seven as another reason behind the interception totals. Notre Dame returns elite pass-rushers in Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo, All-American nose guard candidate Louis Nix and adds a guy they're high on in Sheldon Day to the mix.
"When you play Notre Dame, you don't have a whole lot of time to throw," Elliott said.
Combine all that together, and Irish players and coaches didn't sound worried when asked about a regression to the mean. Even if the interception rate goes down, they feel there are more than enough counter-measures in place to keep that from having a negative effect.
Applying it to 2013
The whole premise here: Notre Dame got a bit lucky last year as a whole, but the effect of it wasn't extraordinary.
"The difference between 12-0 and 10-2 is probably a missed field goal in overtime that could've made it 11-1," Martin said. "But that's in every sport every day."
Pointing to single-play instances of luck to frame into a larger argument, though, goes for any team. If Chris Conley drops Aaron Murray's pass in the final seconds of the SEC Championship, Georgia gets another shot at the end zone — and another shot to knock Alabama out of the BCS Championship.
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Just like if Harper hit that field goal, or the officiating crew noticed a pair of players wearing the same number on the field for it.
"Honestly, I just think people think we got lucky because they don't want us to succeed," safety Matthias Farley said. "That's what it boils down to. In order to have a good football team, things are going to have to go your way from time to time, but you're going to have to put yourself in a position for those things to go your way. You can call it luck, you can call it whatever you want, but at the end of the day if you're not in the position for that good thing to happen it's never going to happen."
The progression of Kelly's program at Notre Dame allowed the Irish to be in a position where they could capitalize on those single-play instances of good luck, and not be buried by whatever bad luck came their way as well. Ultimately, that's not luck, that's the foundation of a good program.
Notre Dame's focus is to make it back to the BCS Championship. It's literally on their schedule in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, reminding players of the bigger picture.
To get back, the Irish may need a little luck. But, like last year, it may not be as much as you'd think.