It was no secret that there were going to be some growing pains in the evolution of the Notre Dame offense. Brian Kelly was taking a drop-back quarterback with a total of 20 mop-up throws under his belt and putting him into an offensive system that relied on quick throws, quicker data processing, and presenting the threat of both running and passing. And oh, yeah… Crist would also be spending 95-percent of his time in the shotgun.
To call the union of junior quarterback Dayne Crist and Brian Kelly an arranged marriage wouldn’t be far from the truth. Both were stuck with each other, with Kelly having little to no depth behind the departing Jimmy Clausen thanks to the attrition of Weis recruits like Zack Frazer and Demetrius Jones and selective recruiting. There was plenty to like in Crist, a highly touted recruit that ran the football effectively during his prep days, but the Irish offense would hinge on how quickly Crist could learn the new offense, and how quickly his surgically repaired ACL would heal.
Crist took every snap in spring practice, absorbing as much of the offense as he could while the Irish also learned a vastly different way to practice. With a playbook in hand and a collection of skill players, Crist also worked diligently with his receiving corp, establishing a rapport in the offseason to help jump-start the season.
With a ruptured patellar tendon ending his first season as a starter, we can look at Crist’s numbers and compare them to the last few Notre Dame quarterbacks in their first complete season behind center. Crist completed just over 59 percent of his throws for 2033 yards, completing 15 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. Even if we throw out Clausen’s 2007 season, where he ran for his life behind an abysmal offensive line, Crist’s numbers match up well to Jimmy’s 2008 campaign, with Clausen completing nearly 61 percent of his throws for 3172 yards, to go along with 25 touchdown passes and a staggeringly high 17 interceptions. While you’d think Charlie Weis’ vertical offense would show us something different, Clausen’s 7.2 yards per attempt is not that much better than Crist’s 6.9 per throw. Looking further back, even though Brady Quinn played in 11 games as a true freshman, his first sophomore campaign saw him put up numbers remarkable similar to Crist, completing only 54 percent of his throws for 2586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Quinn averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, surprising when you think back to the offense that Tyrone Willingham was running at the time.
This isn’t an article about Dayne Crist’s performance compared to Clausen or Quinn, but it does put in context Crist’s performance in his first season playing college football, as well as point out how similar quarterbacking performances help determine overall records, with Clausen and Quinn both ending up a game better than .500, and if Crist would’ve only finished the game against Tulsa, he’d have likely finished at the same place.
If there’s an easy stat that reflects how the 4-5 Irish got to where they are, it’s turnover margin. The Irish rank 82nd in the country in the critical stat, turning the ball over three more times than they’ve taken it away, with 19 turnovers to 16 takeaways.
Even worse, in games the Irish have lost, the ratio is even more pronounced. Notre Dame has turned the ball over 14 times in their five losses, a staggering 2.8 times per loss. Making things even worse, they’ve only managed to force six takeaways in those games, clocking the Irish in at a -1.6 turnover margin during those five losses, the equivalent of the nation’s worst football teams during Irish defeats.
Looking even closer at the Irish turnovers, you’ll see just how catastrophic they were. Against Michigan, the Irish were intercepted three times. With the Irish leading 7-0 and Tommy Rees called into duty with Dayne Crist’s vision blurred, Rees threw a brutal interception to Jonas Mouton. The next play, the Wolverines tied the game 7-7 with a 31-yard touchdown pass. With the Irish driving past midfield thanks to two large runs by Armando Allen, Nate Montana threw a drive-killing interception at the Michigan 37, stopping the Irish in their tracks. While Dayne Crist’s lone interception of the afternoon didn’t end up hurting the Irish, it killed a major momentum swing for the Irish, with Crist making a terrible decision on the first play of a Notre Dame drive and turning the ball over deep in ND territory.
Against the Spartans, it was more of the same. Michael Floyd coughed up the ball just outside the Michigan State redzone, costing the Irish at least three points in the second quarter, with the lead already 7-0 Irish. Crist’s interception on the first play of a drive later that quarter killed the Irish again in Spartan territory and turned into a 94 yard touchdown drive for the Spartans. Crist’s fourth quarter fumbled didn’t lose the game for the Irish, but it killed a potential go-ahead drive close to midfield.
Not to belabor the point, but a Dayne Crist fumble turned into seven points against Stanford. A Crist interception gave the Cardinal 14 points straight from the Irish quarterback’s hands to the wrong team. Against Navy, the Irish could’ve walked into the locker room down only four points, but Crist’s late interception added seven more to the Navy score, and a third quarter pick cemented the Midshipmen’s route. As for the Tulsa game? Well, Rees’ pick six was hardly his fault, but to say that turnovers killed the Irish in that game is an epic understatement.
When looked at cumulatively, the turnovers are maddening for Irish fans, and nearly a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong this season, and why the Irish are looking uphill at a bowl game. But when looking at the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks — two of the best to every play the position for the Irish — Crist’s struggles, especially while experiencing meaningful minutes for the first time and doing so in a new system, begins to make a little bit more sense.
When Brian Kelly talks about the razor thin margin for error this team has offensively, it sounds like coachspeak. But when you look at the games the Irish have lost, that observation looks a lot more insightful. Turning the ball over at critical times, that’s how the Irish got to 4-5.