In looking at the box score from last Saturday's game against San Diego State, three stats jumped out at me. The first, of course, was four Notre Dame turnovers, two of which led to Aztec touchdowns. Amazing, really, to think that the Irish committed four turnovers (not including turning it over on downs), and still won the game. That doesn't happen very often. The second was the big "0" in the sacks allowed column.
The third stat that caught my eye was average starting field position (ASFP). Against SDSU Notre Dame's average starting field position was its own 43 yard line, while San Diego's average starting field position was its own 23 yard line. On average, the Irish began its offensive possessions a full twenty yards farther up the field than the Aztecs (I'll note that as "+20" for the game). When I saw those numbers they struck me as very unusual for this Irish squad, so I did a little digging into last season's stats and I wanted to share what I found.
In 2007, Notre Dame had better ASFP than its opponent in four games. Go ahead and guess which games. I'll wait.
Notre Dame won the field position battle in its three wins and in the triple-overtime loss to Navy. Against UCLA Notre Dame was +14 in ASFP. Against Navy they were +16; they were +9 against Duke and +2 against Stanford.
The +20 in ASFP against SDSU is better than the Irish did in that category in any game last year, even with four turnovers. This is amazing when you consider how important turnovers are to the field position battle. But last Saturday the Notre Dame turnovers occurred at the ND 42, ND 44, SDSU 20 and SDSU 3. What we were able to avoid were the turnovers deep in our own end that lead to easy points for the opponent and which plagued the Irish last year.
Let's look at some examples from last season.
Against Georgia Tech in 2007 (a 33-3 loss) the Irish were -19 in ASFP. Notre Dame's ASFP was the ND 23, while Tech's ASFP was their own 42. That game featured Notre Dame fumbles at their own 44, 33, and 17 yard lines which led to two Georgia Tech touchdowns and on field goal.
Against Michigan (a 38-0 whipping) the Irish were -10 in ASFP. Irish ASFP was the ND 29, UM ASFP was its own 39 yard line. That game featured Notre Dame turnovers at its own 48, 45, 38, and 21 yard lines leading to three Michigan touchdowns.
Against Southern Cal (another 38-0 whipping) the Irish were -8 in ASFP. (Yes I know that it really bugs them to be called Southern Cal. That's why I do it.) Notre Dame's ASFP was it's own 28, the Trojans' ASFP was their 36. That game featured Notre Dame turnovers at their own 13 and 10 yard lines, leading to two easy USC touchdowns.
A lot of factors determine field position. The effectiveness of the offense and defense of course are important. But the offense doesn't have to be very dynamic to keep the team in the field position game. If a drive starts at the 20 and only manages one first down, a forty yard punt that is covered well will give the opponent the ball at its own 30 yard line. If the offense can push the ball out to the forty before punting, that same forty yard punt covered well leaves the opponent operating at or inside their own 20 yard line.
What really defines the field position game are special teams and turnovers. As noted above, Notre Dame was guilty last season of turning the ball over at its own end of the field, which forfeits field position and sets the opponent up with easy scoring opportunities. It's well known that Notre Dame also underperformed in the kicking game last year, losing "hidden yards" in the exchanges of punts and kickoffs. Against SDSU the Irish were remarkably improved on special teams (despite the poor play of the field goal unit). In the punting game, Notre Dame averaged 39.8 yards per punt, allowed an average punt return of just 1.7 yards, for a net per punt of 38.8 yards. SDSU had an average punt of just 30.2 yards, allowed an average Irish punt return of 13.7 yards, for a net yards per punt of just 23.4. That's 14.4 yards of field position gained on the average exchange of punts!
The story was the same on kickoffs. Notre Dame had an average kickoff return of 24.7 yards compared to the Aztecs' average of 12.5 yards per return. Notre Dame averaged a net 48 yards per kickoff, compared to SDSU's net 39.3 yards per kickoff. That's almost a 9 yard advantage in field position on each exchange of kickoffs.
One of the key off-season changes made by Coach Weis was to make himself the assistant special teams coach. The struggles of the field goal unit largely overshadowed the dramatic improvements in the punting and kicking units over last year. If the Irish can carry that improvement into the rest of the schedule it will have a big impact on the field position battle and will bode well for Irish fortunes.
After looking over the stats from the San Diego State game I felt a little better about it. Of course the turnovers in the Red Zone that cost Notre Dame prime scoring opportunities were awful and have to be corrected. But the overall perormance of the team in the field position battle was very, very encouraging. That win was the result of an offense not committing the killer turnover deep in its own end of the field, a defense that largely contained the Aztecs and didn't give up the big play, and very strong special teams play. All of those stand in contrast to the 2007 edition of the Irish, which coughed up the ball deep in its own end all too frequently, and which was generally outplayed on special teams.
I believe that if we win the field position battle against the Wolverines tomorrow we will win the game. I also believe we can win that battle. On offense Job #1 has to be to take care of the football. If we can hold onto the ball and punt, rather than putting it on the ground in the shadow of our own goal posts, we can ride our defense to a victory. Our offense is improved from last year and should be able to have some modest success moving the ball, generally through the air judging from Michigan's games against Utah and Miami (Ohio). But the match-up that really favors us is the Irish "D" versus the Wolverine "O". Notre Dame's defense was actually very solid last year, and should be even better this year with more experience and the addition of Coach Jon Tenuta's pressure scheme's. They face a Michigan offense featuring new faces at every key position and trying to learn a new spread offense under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. The performance of this new offense has been uneven, at best. The Irish defense should have the opportunity to be very disruptive, force some turnovers, and put the offense in excellent scoring position.
I see a low scoring game, decided by turnovers and special teams play. Notre Dame 20, Michigan 13.
This week's motto: "Punt and play defense."