Notre Dame's playbook is just a piece of paper with "Exciting things will happen!" scribbled on it.
That video up there? Those are highlights from Notre Dame's epic 13-12 overtime victory over Denver this past weekend in the Mile High Classic. Jim Marlatt stuck home the winner with 2:51 remaining in the extra period, capping off a day in which the Irish -- currently ranked third in both the media and coaches poll -- and the Pioneers were knotted on the scoreboard nine times (including a miraculous Sean Rogers tally with 47 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the score at 12).
This has been the modus operandi for Notre Dame for the last two seasons -- play tough and resilient lacrosse and trust that things will come together when necessary. The Irish's last four games -- against Penn State, North Carolina, Hofstra, and Denver -- have all been one-goal affairs with Notre Dame needing overtime in three of those contests to settle things on the field. (Oddly, Notre Dame's lone loss in this stretch was a regulation defeat at the hands of the Pride, a game in which the Irish surged late but couldn't overcome a three-goal deficit over the final nine minutes of play). Teams generally wilt in these kind of situations, but for whatever reason Notre Dame has thrived in close games over the last two seasons: In the Irish's last 14 games decided by two goals or less, Notre Dame is 10-4 (including five overtime wins). These circumstances tend to even out over time, and yet the Irish continue to win close game after close game despite the universe's attempt to right the continuum. It's hard to explain, unless you assume that Notre Dame is poisoning their opponent's Gatorade jugs between regulation and overtime (which I'm not ruling out as a legitimate possibility).
Other than that, here's some blunderbuss notes about the Irish this year:
- There was a bit of chatter following Notre Dame's win this weekend that the Irish, long one of Division I's best defensive teams, yielded double digit goals to an opponent. (The last time this happened was against Virginia last season in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament; Notre Dame hasn't given up double digit goals in the regular season since an 11-8 defeat at the hands of Syracuse on April 30, 2011.) I guess that's an interesting talking point, but it kind of misses the point: The Irish, rather, limited the Pioneers to only 12 goals. Denver is currently ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency, pumping in about 46 goals per 100 offensive possessions (the average value nationally right now is only about 30 goals per 100 possessions). The Pioneers are storming around with laser cannons this season, and the fact that the Irish kept Denver at only 12 tallies when the team should have generated about 14 based on their production this season, eviscerates any concern that Notre Dame was significantly softer than their true defensive acumen.
- No team has played a more difficult schedule thus far this season than the Irish. Any way you want to chop it up shows Notre Dame's opening slate as the most difficult in the country: No team has faced opposing offenses as strong as what the Irish have seen based on adjusted offensive efficiency; no team has faced better balanced opponents -- based on opponent adjusted efficiency margin -- than what the Irish have encountered so far in 2013; and the opponents the Irish have already faced, in totem, hold an aggregated Pythagorean win expectation north of 68 percent, the highest mark in the country. (Also, the Irish have faced a schedule ranked 16th in opposing defenses faced, which emboldens the notion that nobody has endured the kind of gauntlet that Notre Dame has run through to start their campaign.) The utility of this information is as follows: You can knock the Irish for playing in close games this season and use it as an argument for questioning their current poll positions, but the strength of the opponents that the Irish have faced also proves that they're able to go toe-to-toe with the best that the country has to offer -- in difficult circumstances -- and succeed. Massachusetts and Villanova have played similarly difficult schedules, and those teams are only 3-4 and 1-5, respectively. Notre Dame is getting it done with explosions happening all around them while others die in the fire.
- There are still lingering concerns as to whether Notre Dame is going to be able to produce enough offense to support another tank-running-over-open-field defense. The Irish's offense is improved over last season (from ranking 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency at the end of 2012 to 23rd this year), and the continued development of freshman Matt Kavanagh, the maturation of midfielder Jim Marlatt, and the relationship of those two players with guys like Conor Doyle and Sean Rogers should push the Irish to stronger offensive heights as the season progresses. However, the offense still has work to do. The team is yielding possessions in the attack box, losing about 40 percent of their trips into the attack area through a turnover (a mark that ranks right around the national average). That's not helpful when (1) you need a little bit of offensive volume to make the scoreboard blink, and (2) you are playing about half of an offensive possession less than your opponents this year. Shooting continues to be a bit of an issue for Notre Dame, putting only about 54.59 percent of their shots on cage (only four teams have a lower shots on goal percentage than the Irish) and connecting on only about 27 percent of their attempts (a mark that ranks 26th nationally). The team is, once again, relying on a lot of individual efforts to generate goals -- the Irish rank 34th in offensive assist ratio and are generating assists on only about 17 percent of their offensive possessions (30th in the country) -- and that could be driving some of Notre Dame's shooting woes. If this improves -- especially individual shooting rates from guys with high-ish usage rates and low shooting percentages (Jim Marlatt (22.7 percent), Tyler Kimball (15.4 percent), Will Corrigan (8.3 percent), and Ryan Foley (0.0 percent)) -- Notre Dame becomes very dangerous in its hunt for its first national title.