Turnovers & Penalties: What We've Learned (If Anything) Since 1981

FUMBLE!!! But who recovered it? (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

While going back and doing a lot of research for our Top 30 Defining Moments series published weekly this offseason, I kept thinking the same thing after reading some old game recaps:

Lou Holtz' teams at Notre Dame seemed to fumble a lot, and to lose a lot of fumbles in big games.

On the one hand it would seem to make sense. Holtz' teams didn't throw the ball a whole lot so if they did turn the ball over it would be through the running game where the carries were so numerous. On the other hand, we often hear "OMG HOLTZ' TEAMS WERE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL EVER," so I thought it'd be fun to look at turnovers and penalties stretching back a few decades and see what the numbers say.

You can use the following document as a reference for all the stats discussed here:

Notre Dame Turnovers & Penalties Since 1981.

^Note: Some bowl games from the early part of this survey may not be included, the university documents are not very clear on the matter, although the player stats match up to other sites. The Navy and bowl game are definitely missing from the data for the 1998 season.

Although 2011 felt like the most turnovers ever, last year fell in a tie for third worst since 1981 for Notre Dame teams and 10th worst overall in the country last season. Still bad---but not quite historically bad---although how the turnovers happened clearly would be a finalist for Most Crushing Turnovers in Notre Dame History Award.

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Take a look at 1984, my goodness what a wild year. 32 turnovers but still a positive turnover ratio! To put that into perspective, 30 or more turnovers and a positive turnover ratio has happened exactly three times in all of college football since 2007.

The best part about '84 is that they actually fumbled 33 times (tied for the most with 1996) yet only lost 13 of those fumbles---the fifth best fumbles lost percent of this time period. That was one lucky team that could have easily gone over 40 turnovers. However, they were lucky that their opponents lost nearly 68% of their fumbles (5th worst for opponents) which basically accounts for the team's positive turnover ratio, and evens things out.

Had the 1984 squad gone over 40 turnovers, not only would that have been one of the most turnover prone seasons in college history (no team has gone over 40 since 2007 so I'm assuming this is rarefied air), but their turnover ratio STILL wouldn't have been as bad as the 2011 season.

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As we've talked about numerous times, it wasn't so much the amount of turnovers in 2011 but the circumstances involved in those turnovers PLUS the anemic amount of turnovers caused by the Irish defense. Only 14 takeaways is the fewest for a Notre Dame team since 1981, and I'd bet that's probably the fewest in school history* as well.

*I checked as far back as the 1952 season before the stats provided by the university become essentially useless, and no team had as few as 14 takeaways. My rough estimate is that every Irish team from 1952-1980 had over 20 takeaways and ~25-30 seemed to be a fairly typical season with spikes into the 30's not uncommon.

However, I did notice that the 1977 team had a mind boggling 52 takeaways---23 fumble recoveries and 29(!) interceptions---more than one takeaway per quarter. To put that into perspective, with that many takeaways Notre Dame's 2011 season would have been +23 and in 1st place since 1981 by a wide margin---almost 61% better than the second best season of this studied era. Would Notre Dame have lost last year if that happened? What's even more crazy is that the 1977 national title winning team lost 25 fumbles and were "only" +13 in turnover ratio.

Bonus fact: Notre Dame had 30 or more turnovers every season from 1967 to 1977, except for 1971.

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Speaking of takeaways, it's been a problem for the Irish for nearly a decade and not just last season. Kelly and Diaco may stress keeping the ball in front of the defense and stuffing the run above all else, but they'll have to generate more turnovers in the future if this program is to put up some more wins. 14 is pretty pathetic and the 2010 team was only at 21 (which would have been in the bottom third since '81) until Miami gift wrapped 4 picks to Irish safeties in the Sun Bowl.

Some more brain nuggets on takeaways:

  • 6 of the top 8 seasons in takeaways occurred prior to 1996.
  • 10 of the top 12 seasons in takeaways occurred either in the 1980's or 90's.
  • The 1988 and 1989 teams---generally considered the best teams of the modern era---placed 3rd and 1st respectively, causing 72 turnovers in back-to-back seasons. Those defenses were kind of good.
  • The Faust and Holtz teams averaged 26.95 takeaways per season, while the Weis and Kelly teams have averaged a full 6 less takeaways per season---a rather significant margin.

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Would anyone have guessed that the 2000 team suffered the fewest turnovers over the past 30 years? Probably if you remember that team continued the Holtzian tradition of barely throwing the ball, coupled with the miraculous ridiculous season that Matt Lovecchio produced with just one interception on 125 attempts. Godsey and Battle only threw 3 picks on 72 attempts as well.

The 2000 team has the best turnover ratio (+14) since 1981 and they also fumbled only 12 times, losing just a third of those put on the turf, which tied for the best percentage of the sampled era. To sum up, that team had the second fewest fumbles overall of the time period, the fewest fumbles lost overall, and also tied for the lowest percentage of fumbles lost. That's quite the lucky team---it's too bad they couldn't do better than 9-3, or maybe that's why they did go 9-3 in the first place.

Only six teams of the time period had a negative turnover ratio and it's somewhat interesting that only 2 of those teams (1986 and 1999) had losing records.

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Take a look at the 1990 squad---after those dominant Holtz teams forced a bajillion turnovers in the late 80's, the 1990 takeaways were cut in half. That was the only Holtz team from 1987 to 1995 to have a negative turnover ratio, the opponents percentage of fumbles lost was the lowest of the Holtz era (and 2nd lowest overall), the percentage of fumbles lost by the Irish was 2nd worst of the era (the national title team in '88 had the highest!), and the discrepancy of fumbles lost for Notre Dame versus the opponent was the worst by a large margin.

In short, the 1990 team wasn't particularly lucky and it makes you wonder what another bounce or two could have done for a very talented team that lost 3 very close games that year.

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On the topic of fumbles lost, my suspicions that Holtz' teams lost a lot of the pigskin holds true as the top four teams (and 7 of the top 12) with the highest percentages were all under Lou's leadership. However, as prefaced in the beginning of this article that is a misleading statistic and somewhat predictable as Holtz ran the ball so damn much. In fact, Holtz' teams fumbled every 29.07 carries while Brian Kelly's teams have fumbled once every 21.34 carries.

I know what you're thinking---Kelly's percentage would go up if he just gave the ball to a fullback 10 times a game.

Kelly and Holtz do have one thing in common though: They are the only coaches since 1981 to lose a greater percentage of their fumbles over their careers at Notre Dame in relation to their opponents. Kelly's -5.17% in this regard is the worst, and when added to the fact that there's been a couple 99-yard fumbles returned for scores against him, plus fumbles like the '11 Michigan game where Robinson picks it right up and scores---he's been incredibly unlucky so far through his career.

You'll notice the overall percentage of fumbles lost for Notre Dame and the opponents is pretty close to 50/50 over the past three decades as would be expected with a large sample, while both Weis and Kelly lost exactly half their fumbles.

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While turnovers seem to be more descriptive than predictive (the top seven Notre Dame teams in turnover ratio since 1981 are a combined 68-15), we know teams that fare well in that category tend to do well. Penalties however, are a lot less clear.

Since 1981, each Notre Dame coach has improved the average penalty yards against the Irish in comparison to the opponents. You'll notice the top five seasons with the worst penalty difference all occurred in the 1980's with Gerry Faust in the negative all five seasons in South Bend, Holtz negative in 8 out of 11 seasons, and Davie negative in 4 out of 5 seasons. Even Willingham was negative in two out of his three seasons.

Moreover, Notre Dame is currently on a streak of six straight campaigns without a negative penalty yard season, and Kelly's 2010 season was the greatest penalty difference of the past 3 decades.

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What does it mean?

Have recent Notre Dame teams really been that much more disciplined than some of the elite teams coached by Lou Holtz? Were Gerry Faust's teams so wildly undisciplined and how apparent was it back then while watching and without looking at the stats?

In Lou Holtz' first season at Notre Dame he improved the penalty yard difference by a healthy 179 yards---did people take this as a sign of improved fundamentals and discipline? What about the following year when the difference shot back up over 100 yards the other way to what has become the fifth worst ratio of the past 30 years?

Kelly's 2010 team improved by 246 yards from Weis' last team, and Kelly has the highest two-year total difference since 1981---does it not mean that much when Notre Dame hasn't had a negative season since 2005? Even Bob Davie improved the Irish by an astonishing 258 yards from Lou's last team---but do these things mean anything?

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Some thoughts:

1) The logic---or some would say the mythology---doesn't seem to fit that recent Notre Dame teams have been this much more disciplined than teams 20 years ago, but how else are we to measure something like discipline? Those Holtz teams certainly blocked and tackled a lot better, but is that the form of discipline we're talking about? Does better/more talented/better coaching equal more disciplined no matter what the penalty yardage says? Is it a system thing? Do the pass-first offenses under Weis and Kelly where so much emphasis is put on getting the ball out quickly account for the difference in penalties from 20 years ago?

2) Even Faust's -216 yearly average doesn't seem obscenely harmful---it comes out to one holding call and an offsides more than the opponent every game for a 11-game season. Heck, Holtz' average comes out to just one 5-yard offsides more than the opponent per game.

3) These discussions really don't take into account the play of the opponent. Could Irish opponents be much more undisciplined nowadays? And what about referees and officials? Could it be that the men in stripes truly were inherently biased against Notre Dame in a world without instant replay, HD television, stadium video boards, and instantaneous criticism for blown calls? With a greater microscope on the referees are were beginning to see that Notre Dame is generally more disciplined than their opponents?

4) Perhaps it's better if your team is in the negative for penalty yardage? We seem to look at penalties as an inherently bad thing, but they can serve as an effective form of intimidation (or frustration), especially for more talented teams. If you have a big lead, why not hold a defensive linemen who may potentially hit your quarterback? If a receiver beats his corner in coverage, why not pass interfere, especially when it's not near the end zone and the defense will have another shot to create a turnover? Why not add a couple dirty hits here and there to send the opponent a clear message? Certainly more aggressive defenses are bound to rack up a lot of penalties, right? What's more, since 2007 the teams playing in the BCS title game have been a combined -767 in penalty yardage versus their opponents, with only four teams ('11 Alabama, '11 LSU, '09 Alabama, '09 Texas) out of the 10 being in the positive.

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So, have we learned anything that concrete through this informal study? Probably not, but it's still fun to look at anyway. It's interesting to see how unlucky Holtz was in regard to fumbles over his career at Notre Dame, but ultimately talent trumps luck doesn't it?

We'll also see where the numbers take Brian Kelly over the next few seasons. His -15 turnover ratio from last season sticks out like a sore thumb, but it's literally impossible to sustain that kind of ratio. The 2011 season was the very definition of unlucky in terms of turnovers. However, if you subscribe to the theory that teams who have a double-digit turnover ratio in the negative are bound to equal or improve upon their record, 2012 might surprise some people.

That theory applied to 12 teams after the 2010 season, and 10 of those programs either equaled or bettered their wins in 2011. Three teams equaled their wins, 7 teams improved (including 4 of the 5 BCS teams**), and only Middle Tennessee State and Fresno did worse.

**This includes Michigan who went from -10 and 7 wins to +7 and 11 wins.

Of course not all of Kelly's problems have been due to luck, but 16 wins over two seasons with a -14 turnover ratio can be described as doing a pretty good job in spite of those mistakes. As head coach, he bears the brunt of those turnovers but the odds are his teams will improve in this category over time. Once they do, it will be interesting to see what record the Irish post when there's a quarterback who can protect the ball a little better, a defense that forces a few more turnovers, and a season ratio that ends up something like +8 instead of in the negative.

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