To describe Notre Dame's rapidly descending start to the 2011 season, you have to tell a tale of two teams. Team A is averaging more than 500 yards per game and has outgained its first two opponents by more than 300 total yards. Team B is 0-2 with five turnovers in each loss, more than any other team in the nation. Unless they rip off ten consecutive wins to finish the regular season, neither one is going to a BCS game.
But if Team A ever figures out how to leave Team B stuffed inside of a locker, that may not be so farfetched — or so says at least one skeptic who thinks the turnovers have distorted the reality of how good the Irish really are:
Kirk Herbstreit did not expect an echo-waking season from Notre Dame. He then saw every snap of the first two games -- including a view from the broadcast booth last Saturday at Michigan -- and watched the Irish tumble to 0-2.
And the ESPN analyst feels better about Notre Dame than he has at any other point.
"I was not among the folks that was thinking BCS or bust prior to this season," Herbstreit said on a conference call Wednesday. "I just didn't quite see that or have that expectation of them, before the season started. But after watching them the first two weeks of the season, I actually like them better now than I liked them prior to the season starting. …"
If that sounds a little … I dunno, forgiving at the moment, remember that Herbstreit has always been a "trust your eyes" sort of analysts, and what his eyes saw Saturday night in Ann Arbor was mostly the "Team A" edition of Notre Dame dominating the Wolverines for the first three quarters before falling victim to Denard Robinson's X-Box audition in the fourth. (After charting every play of the game, even Michigan super-blogger Brian Cook described the Wolverines' strategy in the final 15 minutes as "chuck it up and hope.") For the second week in a row, the Fighting Irish controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, consistently moved the chains and came out significantly ahead in the box score by almost every measure — and lost.
Which brings us to the inescapable theme of their season to date: Turnovers. More specifically, red zone turnovers that negate all the positives of a long drive into opposing territory. Against South Florida, Notre Dame failed to score on four different trips inside the USF 10-yard line, including a goal line fumble that was returned the length of the field for a USF touchdown, an interception into the USF end zone and another interception that bounced off the intended receiver's helmet inside the USF five-yard line. Against Michigan, quarterback Tommy Rees was picked off at the Wolverine two-yard line in the second quarter and later fumbled for no reason at the Wolverine nine, on either side of a fumble by running back Cierre Wood at the Wolverine 30-yard line. Six golden opportunities to score, seven points for the other team.
Of course, "could been" has been the mark of struggling teams from time immemorial. But in this case, it's also the mark of one that's doing a lot right and can still be very good if it curbs its tendency to shoot itself in the face when it's put itself in position for something good to happen. As coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday, "they can see the body of work is there," obscured by a handful of big errors that have undermined the whole thing. Vegas can certainly see it, installing the Irish as 4.5-point home favorites Saturday against 2-0 Michigan State on the bet — literally — that the "real" Notre Dame is the one that's dominated the stat sheet rather than the one that's fallen short on the scoreboard.
Still, that's the Irish's last chance to salvage the benefit of the doubt: If the giveaways persist in another high-profile loss, the reality will be all too clear.