Different perspective on weekend matchup


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.

I’ve railed on the mediocre special teams coverage and punting from Eric Maust, but lost in the coverage of all these incredible games is an obvious, yet astute observation like this.

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.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley

Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.


Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson

Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame

Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.