Statistically, where is Notre Dame improving, not improving?

Statistically, where is Notre Dame improving, not improving?
October 30, 2013, 7:30 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame players and coaches see things this way: They're entering Game 3 of a six-week season, and if they win out, they'll go to a BCS bowl.

Ten wins wouldn't guarantee Notre Dame a BCS berth — the 2002 Irish went 10-2 in the regular season and were ranked No. 11 after their final game (a 44-13 loss to USC), and went to the non-BCS Gator Bowl. But ending the 2013 season on a seven-game winning streak with wins over Arizona State, USC, BYU and Stanford would likely put Notre Dame in a solid position for a BCS berth.

A look at a few stats offers some encouragement for Notre Dame's BCS hopes, though not everything has improved from August/September to October. And too, it's worth noting that October is a small sample size of just three games.

Regardless, below are 10 significant stats broken up by August/September and October:

Total defense:
Aug./Sept.: 364 yards per game
Oct: 365 yards per game

Not much to see here. Notre Dame's defense is still allowing yards, but that's not entirely the point. Bob Diaco's bend-but-don't-break defense is fine with giving up yards to avoid big plays, then locking down once an offense nears the red zone.

[MORE: Brian Kelly on Tommy Rees: "He's just Fighting Irish"]

Scoring defense:
Aug./Sept: 23.8 points per game
Oct.: 18 points per game

In Notre Dame's first five games, the defense bent and broke. Lately, that hasn't been the case — a pair of 10-point games have largely helped here after Arizona State hung 34 points (27 on offense) on the Irish on Oct. 5.

Opponent third down conversion percentage:
Aug./Sept.: 42.7 percent
Oct.: 30.2 percent

Here's perhaps the biggest key to that five-point drop: Notre Dame's defense is getting off the field far more than it did early on. Michigan converted half its third down chances en route to scoring 41 points; while Arizona State's offense still hung 27 on the Irish they only converted 4 of 13 third down tries. Skewing the October percentage downward, though: USC's putrid 15 percent (2-of-13) third down conversion rate.

Sacks:
Aug./Sept.: four in five games
Oct.: eight in three games

Sacks generally put opposing offenses into passing downs (second and long, third and more-than-5), against which Notre Dame is generally solid. Eight sacks doesn't entirely key the third-down success for the Irish defense, but it certainly helps.

Scoring offense:
Aug./Sept: 25.4 points per game
Oct: 32 points per game

Facing Air Force and losing Tommy Rees against USC sort of cancel each other out, and Notre Dame's offensive output against Arizona State is about the norm here.

Rushing offense:
Aug./Sept. 135.4 yards per game
Oct: 136.3 yards per game

No improvement here. George Atkinson's hot-and-cold play and Cam McDaniel's solid-not-spectacular games contribute the most here.

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Third down conversion percentage:
Aug./Sept. 46.6 percent
Oct. 32.5 percent

Going 4-of-14 on third downs vs. USC wasn't the only culprit here — the Irish offense converted 4-of-15 third-down chances against Arizona State, too.

Plays of 10 or more yards:
Aug./Sept. 66 in five games
Oct.: 43 in three games

This is a big reason why the third-down stuff hasn't seriously dinged Notre Dame's scoring output. The Air Force game in particular — in which all five of Tommy Rees' touchdown passes were for more than 10 yards — boosted things here.

Red zone scoring percentage:
Aug./Sept.: 66.7 percent
Oct.: 88.9 percent

Notre Dame only missed one red zone scoring chance in October, after failing to score five times after reaching the red zone in August and September. The Irish are scoring touchdowns from the red zone at a higher clip, too — the offense has six TDs in nine trips in October, compared to eight TDs in 15 trips in August/September.

Turnover margin:
Aug./Sept.: -2
Oct.: +4

You could throw out the previous nine stats and use this as the reason why Notre Dame went 3-0 in October as opposed to 3-2 in August/September. It's not complete, but it is telling: Tommy Rees threw one interception in October.

There are some stats here that would suggest — again, cautioning a small sample size — that Notre Dame is getting better in certain areas. It's a statistical view that's supported by what players have seen — including senior cornerback and captain Bennett Jackson.

"I feel like, honestly, we've improved tremendously," Jackson said Wednesday. "You can completely turn it around as a team, to be honest with you, if you have the right guys, right character guys there to push you. I think a team can completely change from Week 1 to Week 6 and completely change to Week 8 so long as they progress each week."