I think I’ve read about 3,000 different game previews (which is why I haven’t given you one), but I just stumbled across one that I think is pretty unique.
Football Outsiders is a website with the tagline “Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis,” about --yep, you guessed it -- football. I’ve got them in my RSS feed, and always check in on what they’ve got brewing in that big pot of theirs.
Today, their preview of the USC vs. ND matchup was posted over at ESPN, and they had a few interesting points-of-view that I haven’t seen while doing my “research” for the big game. (And by research, I mean web-surfing until my eyes feel like bleeding and my wrists feel like a 65-year-old arthritic carpenters.)
While they had a unique perspective on fairly obvious battles like the red zone, big plays and 1st downs, an even more obvious battle was something that I hadn’t really thought of: field position.
Of all the factors involved in Saturday’s game -- battles at the line of scrimmage, Notre Dame’s stellar passing offense versus USC’s stout pass defense, etc. -- the most important could be one that often is overlooked: field position.
Obviously, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Having a punter who can flip the field in your favor with a booming kick (or, on the flip side, breaking a punt or kickoff return into opposing territory) can make a huge difference, as can a nice return on an interception or a huge third-down sack. In college football, teams that play with a field position advantage win about 66 percent of the time.
Why does field position matter to Notre Dame in particular Saturday? Because the Irish have not made things easy on themselves so far this year. They have started drives at or inside their 30-yard line 63 percent of the time in 2009; the national average is only 57 percent. This has not stopped their offense from being effective -- they have scored at least 33 points in four of five games. But they have needed every bit of Jimmy Clausen’s passing efficiency (first in the nation) to move the ball and score points. In fact, 12 of Notre Dame’s 19 touchdown drives this season have taken place on drives of 70 yards or longer. You might get away with that against Purdue or Washington, but against a USC unit that will be the best the Fighting Irish have faced this season, repeatedly getting stuck deep in their own territory is a recipe for disaster.
It seems like Notre Dame has constantly been forced to make long drives down the field, which is another thing that makes Jimmy Clausen’s play so incredible. Likewise, it feels like every punt Golden Tate is back deep to return he ends up fair-catching. While most of the talk on freshman specialists has been focused on kicker Nick Tausch, there is a lot of pressure on the yolked up Ben Turk to get some hang-time and distance on his punts this week. Turk only got two kicks off in his debut, but neither cracked 40 yards.
For the Irish to win Saturday, they’ll need to finally play a game where they flip the field in their favor.