To truly grasp how much Notre Dame relied on forced turnovers to rout Michigan State 38-18 on Saturday, consider the halftime stat sheet.
The most important number, naturally, was the score: 28-7. Every statistic down the rest of the box score was either an even comparison or tilted toward the Spartans.
Total yards: Notre Dame 209, Michigan State 221.
Rushing yards: Notre Dame 99, Michigan State 121.
Passing yards: Notre Dame 110, Michigan State 100.
Third down conversions: Notre Dame 5-of-8, Michigan State 6-of-10.
Total plays: Notre Dame 34, Michigan State 39.
Yards per play: Notre Dame 6.1, Michigan State 5.7.
A three-possession deficit belies all those metrics.
Interceptions: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 1.
Fumbles Lost: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 2.
“We hadn’t been able to take the football away the last few years,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “We’re taking it away, and then we’re opportunistic.”
Opportunistic may be putting it lightly. Notre Dame has scored 56 points off nine turnovers this season. The only occasion which did not result in a touchdown came as the first half ended against Georgia. Senior rover Drue Tranquill intercepted Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds remaining in the second quarter. A three-and-out, in part limited by a false start penalty against senior left guard Quenton Nelson, led to a punt as the clock reached four zeroes.
To put those nine turnovers in a larger context, last year the Irish defense forced a total of 14 turnovers. At the current pace, there may be as many as 27 this season.
“Those are the real numbers when you get down to it,” Kelly said. “They equal points and point differentials, and they equal winning football games.”
Part of those numbers are certainly the lack of turnovers offered up by Notre Dame’s offense, only five at this point. More impressively, however, is how the defense has responded to those situations, allowing a total of three points.
Think about that: The Irish have outscored opponents 56-3 on stolen possessions.
“Each team takes on a different kind of look each year, and this team is the way it’s coached, the way [defensive coordinator] Mike Elko was brought here because we knew that’s the kind of defense that he has coached in his tenure,” Kelly said. “He coaches it every day, he talks about it, but more importantly, it’s taught every single day. Those aren’t coincidences.”
An increase also in sacks
Fourteen was a common theme in criticizing Notre Dame’s defense from a year ago. The Irish forced only 14 turnovers, for example. They also tallied only 14 sacks.
Nearly keeping pace with the influx of takeaways, Notre Dame has recorded eight quarterback takedowns through four games. Most notably Saturday, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara sacked Michigan State junior Brian Lewerke on the second half’s opening drive, forcing the Spartans to attempt a field goal.
Officially, Okwara shared credit for that sack with junior tackle Jerry Tillery, but whoever deserves the credit, the event itself is what is vital to Elko’s approach. Tranquill also managed a sack against the Spartans.
Quick multiplication puts the Irish on pace for 24 sacks this season. That may not be an especially startling figure, but the simple threat of that pass rush forces quarterbacks to keep it in mind, furthering its effect.
Both Okwara and Tillery entered the weekend with one sack this season. The half for each will put them atop the Notre Dame listing.
Junior running back Dexter Williams caught his first career touchdown pass Saturday night, an eight-yard reception from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the second quarter.
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh notched his first career touchdown with a nine-yard carry in the third quarter, finishing the day with a career-high 12 carries for another career-high of 35 yards.