Searching for Notre Dame's identity amid recent turnovers
By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network
As I awaited Notre Dame's postgame interviews after its 55-31 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, I saw a Tweet posted in response to the final score of the just-completed game. Roughly paraphrasing, this Tweet mentioned that perhaps Notre Dame's identity this season could be summed up by one word: "turnover."
I initially dismissed the 140-character message as a heat-of-the-moment fan reaction to a disappointing game, but the more I thought about the main idea, the more I realized it wasn't too far off base.
Notre Dame's play, at least recently, has been characterized by turnovers.
Nowhere was this better exemplified than in Saturday's game, which Brian Kelly referred to as the "Debacle in the Desert" on Sunday.
Notre Dame turned the ball over five times against Arizona State. The Irish turned the ball over early to put them in a 34-3 hole, and they turned it over late to deny themselves a chance at a comeback. They turned it over in many different ways, on bobbled passes, on tipped passes and on the goal line.
They even turned it over on downs late in the game.
It all culminated in an embarrassing 24-point loss that put Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoffs conversation for this season.
Sadly for Notre Dame fans, such a result had been hinted at for weeks. After an opening stretch of three games of largely turnover-free football, Notre Dame turned the ball over five times against Syracuse. The Irish had three turnovers against Stanford and three more the following week against North Carolina. They only had one turnover against Navy, but it was a late first-half red zone interception that helped give Navy momentum to make a comeback attempt.
In fact, the only recent game in which Notre Dame secured the ball well was its matchup with Florida State, arguably the team's most complete effort of the season.
And then there was Saturday's game, which could be pointed to as a clinic on how not to protect the football.
Notre Dame was able to survive its earlier turnover-riddled games because it possessed a significant talent advantage against weaker competition or forced enough turnovers of its own to keep its opponents at bay.
But facing a top-10 team in Arizona State, the Irish played themselves into a major deficit that they couldn't overcome, even with a streak of 28 consecutive points. And it brings me back to the point made earlier via Twitter: Is Notre Dame's identity that it's an inconsistent team that turns the ball over too much?
Looking at the team's performance, I'd have to say it holds some truth, but it also neglects several factors that have played a role in Notre Dame's 6-0 record this season.
The first is that Notre Dame's offense is more potent this season -- the Irish are currently averaging around 35 points per game, their highest total in the Brian Kelly era by a rather significant margin. And a lot of this offensive success falls back on the man who's responsible for so many turnovers -- Everett Golson, he of the 31 touchdowns through nine games. Golson's nine fumbles and 11 interceptions have been maddening to watch for Irish fans, but he's also been the team's most valuable player in several games this season.
Golson may drive the offense, but the recent emergence of running back Tarean Folston and the continued development of a good cast of receivers -- sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson come to mind -- have made the unit fun to watch as well. There has also been the Irish defense, which has struggled and been depleted by injury recently, but features several young playmakers in Jaylon Smith, Cole Luke and Max Redfield, among others.
The story of both the offense and the defense both boil down to essentially the same line -- they're both filled with young players who have made the made the mistakes expected in their development on the big-time college football level.
Still, it's imperative for a senior like Golson to not be the one making more mistakes than the young guys. And there's still plenty of room for him to make mistakes -- still up on Notre Dame's schedule are Louisville, which leads the nation in passes intercepted, and USC, which has the eighth-best turnover margin nationally.
Notre Dame can salvage the remainder of its season with strong performances and improved ball security against these upcoming opponents. However, if Golson and company continue to make the mistakes they've made the last few weeks, the word "turnover" may indeed be the best identifier of this year's Notre Dame squad.
Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett