Progress measured in both wins and losses

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If there’s anything that’s taken the stink off Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma, it’s comparing it to the sinkhole that’s enveloped the football program at rival USC. As the Trojans exit September, they aren’t wondering whether or not they’re still competing for a spot at the top of the Pac-12, but rather who will take on the challenge of undoing the damage that’s happened over the past three seasons.

After watching countless soap operas take over the Notre Dame football program over the past decade, it’s now happening around Heritage Hall, with Pat Haden’s dismissal of Lane Kiffin at LAX taking its place in the pantheon of cold-blooded coaching moves. Notre Dame’s two September losses have Irish fans frustrated and looking for schematic or personnel adjustments, but hardly wondering if the nameplates inside the Gug need to be swapped out.

Measuring progress is a difficult thing. For Pat Haden, he started by judging Kiffin on a curve, understanding that the decimating effects of NCAA sanctions needed to be accounted for in his grading system of his head coach. But losing seven of eleven games, some in very embarrassing fashion (like the Trojans’ second half performance on Saturday night), made the decision Haden made the right choice.

All of this is a long-wandering way to get to Notre Dame’s early season struggles. As much as seeing the Irish fall to both Michigan and Oklahoma is frustrating, there is progress to be found in both losses. Especially when you look at some of the statistics that came out of Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma, a game that was very much in doubt with twelve minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Our friends at HerLoyalSons.com did some deep digging here, and produced this table.

Notre Dame Oklahoma
Number of Drives* 12 12
Avg Starting Position Own 25 Own 31
Three & Outs 5 1
Drives Gaining 0 or less yards 5 0
Drives Ending in Plus Territory 3 10
Drives Reaching Red Zone 1 4
Drives with Explosive (20+ yard) Plays 3 3
Drives ending in TDs 3 3
Drives ending in FGs 0 2
Drives ending in Punts 6 5
Drives ending in Turnovers 3 1†
Total Number of Plays 53‡ 77
Plays per Drive 4.42 6.42
Time of Possession 24:16 35:44

* As mentioned earlier, the ND kneel down drive was excluded. OU’s pick-six does not count as a drive. OU’s turnover on downs counted ND’s kneel down to end half excluded

Put candidly, in year’s past this game would’ve turned out ugly. Like Notre Dame-Michigan ’06 ugly. Or USC-ND ugly in ’08. And while we’ll need to see if this team falls down to that frustrating 8-5 level that plagued Kelly’s first two squads, datapoints like this game (and to a lesser degree against Michigan) do rid critics of the lazy conclusion that this team plays without heart or is lacking leadership (the type of Derek Jeterization of sports that makes logic-based thinkers put their heads through windows).

On paper, this game shouldn’t have been close. Between the three gift interceptions, the offensive failures on nearly half of their drives, or the fact that the Sooners had the ball for almost 36 minutes and ended a ridiculous ten drives in Notre Dame territory, point to a football game that ends in a lopsided fashion more often than not.

Nobody’s looking for consolation prizes. And Brian Kelly’s already talked about adjustments in offensive schemes that’ll lessen the burden on Tommy Rees, changes that the Irish implemented last season to great success. Yet if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, the signs are there. Even if you have to look a little bit deeper to find them.

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For more coverage today on Notre Dame football, check out these articles from IrishIllustrated.com:

From IrishIllustrated.com

ND tries to regain its balance
by Tim Prister

Spark in the rushing attack has Brian Kelly hopeful that the Irish can lighten Tommy Rees’ passing load.

From IrishIllustrated.com

Opponent Overview
by Douglas Farmer

Notre Dame’s opponents went a combined 5-5 last weekend, including No. 22 Arizona State’s romp over USC, which led to the dismal of Trojan head coach Lane Kiffin.