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What though the odds: ND beat USC despite field position


Last season’s Irish victory over the Trojans will be remembered for many things -- a rain-soaked evening, Robert Hughes’ power running, Ronald Johnson’s dropped pass, and the Irish defense’s gutsy performance. The 20-16 victory ended an eight-game losing streak for Notre Dame against Southern Cal, and while history will likely remember the Irish’s two-minute drill capped by Robert Hughes bulldozing his way into the endzone, it’ll likely forget just how impressive the Irish’s defense played, especially considering how badly the Irish lost the battle for field position.

In an article in Maple Street Press’ “Irish Kickoff 2011,” Brian Fremeau takes a look at the turf war a football team fights throughout the year and how a season’s field position advantage (FPA) is often times one of the great predictors for a team’s success.

Put simply, a team winning the field position battle (or in Fremeau’s statistical breakdown, finishing with a FPA > .500) wins the football game two-thirds of the time. Teams with a FPA > .600 win games 90% of the time, a staggering win rate. With those stats in mind, it’s even more impressive that Notre Dame walked away from the Coliseum with a win.

I’ll let Fremeau explain:

In the last 10 seasons, prior to last fall’s USC game, there were six match-ups in which Notre Dame’s opponent had at least four more drives start in plus territory than did the Fighting Irish. The results were not pretty -- the 2004 Oregon State Insight Bowl loss; the debacles against Georgia Tech, Michigan, and Michigan State in 2007; the 2008 Boston College shutout; and the 2010 Stanford game. The average margin of defeat for Notre Dame in those six lopsided field position affairs was a non-competitive 24 points. Against USC, Notre Dame overcame the biggest field position deficit it faced in at least a decade, turning what might have been another multiple-score embarrassment into a glorious triumph.

Fact-checking a box score may not be a sexy way to go down in history, but while Irish fans look to pin the heroics on the back of guys like Hughes, Michael Floyd’s one-man army, or nice performances by Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore, the real hero is an eleven-man collective that put together crucial stops against a Trojan offense starting deep in Irish territory.

In a game that felt like it was Notre Dame’s for much of the evening, Fremeau’s analysis gives you an idea of just how improbable Notre Dame’s win was. To end a losing streak, the Irish defense put a team on its back on a cold, rainy night in Los Angeles. With the odds truly against them, Brian Kelly’s defense put together a performance for the ages.

For more on the subject, and a collection of articles written by some of the best voices following Notre Dame football (and some schmuck named Keith Arnold), treat yourself to Maple Street Press’ Irish Kickoff 2011. If you don’t think it’s worth the ten bucks, shoot me an email, and if I buy your argument, I’ll refund your money myself.