Pregame Six Pack: Maryland edition

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The Baltimore Sun decided to put it less gently, renaming the Shamrock Series the Ugly Helmet Bowl, with the Irish donning new shamrock and gold helmets and Maryland once again bringing out their Maryland Pride uniforms. (SBNation took their disdain to the next level.)  But ascetics aside, Saturday night’s game is another critical game for an Irish team lurking just outside the Top 25.

Even though the Irish will be playing just miles from Maryland’s campus, the FedEx Field match-up will be considered an Irish home game. That’s just the type of motivational ploy Randy Edsall will use as he tried to pick his first-year Terrapin team out of a tailspin, treating tomorrow evening’s game like the only bowl Edsall’s troops will play this season.

As the Irish prepare to done green jerseys in this primetime affair broadcast on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s game.

Run to win. Run to win. 

It’s such an obvious point I needed to say it twice. Looking for a gigantic disparity? Look no further than the juxtaposition between the Irish running game and the Terrapins’ rushing defense. The Irish are No. 13 in the country when it comes to rushing average, running for an average of 5.54 yards per carry. The Terps defense is 114th in the nation in stopping the run, giving up over 233 yards a game on the ground. This is a mismatch the Irish absolutely have to exploit.

After failing to get their ground game going against USC, the Irish have slowly morphed back into the November era team Brian Kelly rode to an undefeated final month of the 2010 season, with the Irish combining for 73 rushing attempts in their last two games. In Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood, the Irish will give Maryland their most challenging one-two punch on the ground, and the Irish run the ball more effectively than any team the Terps have seen, minus Paul Johnson‘s Georgia Tech squad.

Even with Mike Golic now anchoring the middle of the offensive line, Notre Dame needs to dominate the front seven of Maryland, a unit that’s been decimated by injuries.

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Turnovers become even more crucial. 

Looking for a mismatch the other way? It’s turnover margin. The juxtaposition is almost identical to the Irish’s mismatch running the football with Maryland ranking 13th in the country in turnover margin while the Irish are an astoundingly bad 118th in turnover margin — which is tied for dead last in the FBS.

Edsall identified this as the key to his team winning the ballgame.

“They’ve got good skill athletes, got a quarterback that’s playing well who knows where to go with the ball,” Edsall said this week. “The biggest thing we’ve got to try to do is get some turnovers. That’s the biggest thing that has hindered them through the season. You see they’ve moved the ball against everybody, but they’ve had some turnovers. We’re going to have to do the same.”

For anyone that’s been paying attention, this isn’t a new theme and the Irish are in many ways still digging themselves out of the horrific hole they put themselves in after the first two weeks of the season. But for those not frustrated enough, consider this stat that shows just how good the Irish can be when they get out of their own way:

The Irish are one of only 10 teams in the country that rank in the Top 40 in total offense, scoring offense, total defense, and scoring defense. We’ve seen the Irish play like a top 10 football team this year. Unfortunately, turnovers cost them two football games that they’d have run away with. An 8-1 Irish team with their only loss to USC ? That team would likely fit in nicely amidst the AP top ten.

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Slowly but surely, the Irish red zone offense is coming together.

The Irish red zone offense is another one of those statistics that have the Irish buried after a ridiculous start. (The Irish are the football definition of a pitcher that goes out there and gives up a 10 spot in an inning, effectively ruining their ERA for the month, or a golfer that makes an 8 on a par 3.)

Still, while the Irish are still down at 81st in the country in red zone conversions with only 78% of their trips to the red zone resulting in scores, they’ve climbed their way up to No. 23 in touchdown conversions (just shy of 70%), thanks to a really impressive run the past four games. The Irish have scored 15 touchdowns in their past 17 trips to the red zone, their highest touchdown percentage over for games since Bob Davie’s 2000 team.

Back in Davie’s BCS year, Irish victories over Navy (45-14), West Virginia (42-38), Air Force (34-31), and Boston College (28-16) had the Irish scored ten touchdowns on 11 trips inside the red zone. (For an even better trip down memory lane, how about some of these names: Julius Jones, Tony Fisher, Jay Johnson and Dan O’Leary scored against Navy, David Givens and Terrance Howard scored against West Virginia, Joey Getherall and Javin Hunter got into the act against Air Force, and kicker Nick Setta ran in a fake field goal attempt against Boston College.)

Getting back to the Irish’s improved efficiency in the red zone, it’s interesting to see just how rare it is for a team to have such a proficient touchdown ratio while also struggling to simply score, especially when the Irish don’t have a terrible kicking game (though Ruffer’s 60% is good for 92nd in the country). Of the team’s ranked ahead of the Irish in touchdown efficiency, only South Carolina, Miami Ohio, and Army have an overall conversion percentage lower that Notre Dame’s. The RedHawks and Army have the 108th and 120th respective kicking games in the country.

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Edsall put his foot in his mouth too.

Two weeks ago, the internet was ablaze with Brian Kelly’s comments and the resulting Twitter crisis that reportedly created a Brett Favre-like schism in the Irish locker room. But Kelly’s comments splitting his recruits with the previous regimes recruits didn’t hurt the Irish, who came out and throttled Navy 56-14.

But Kelly isn’t the only coach who has made a few comments that raised an eyebrow of players and fans coaching this Saturday night at FedEx Field. Earlier this week, Randy Edsall caught some understandable grief after comparing his building job at UConn to what he faces at Maryland.

“I’ve been through this before,” Edsall said. “I know how to handle it. I know what to do. There is no panic. It was like this the first year when we put the team together in Jacksonville. … It’s Connecticut all over again, 13 years ago. Jacksonville Jaguars all over again. It’s going to Boston College when we were there. I’ve been through all of this. This isn’t earth-shattering. It doesn’t have me discouraged. I have a vision of what we’re going to do and I know we’re doing things the right way.”

It isn’t hard to understand why Edsall took some flack for his comments. Comparing UConn, coming out of D-IAA to Maryland, which has been to a bowl game four of the last five seasons and won nine games last season is a little ridiculous, and has fans already less than patient with Edsall’s “rebuilding” job.

We talked yesterday about Edsall’s fit at Notre Dame. A comment like this would’ve surely created a few ripples.

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Like it or not, the Shamrock Series is here to stay.

The name might be the product of the Notre Dame corporate marketing department, but if there’s one good remnant from Kevin White’s ridiculous 7-4-1 scheduling paradigm, it’s the neutral site home games. Starting with the Irish playing Washington State in San Antonio, Notre Dame has had great success playing in venues like Yankee Stadium, now FedEx Field, and in the future places like Soldier Field in Chicago and Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

More importantly, with the past two seasons getting the Irish into the East Coast and in front of many potential recruits, Kelly and Jack Swarbrick are able to keep the Irish footprint along the eastern seaboard.

“I think it’s important for Notre Dame to be on the East Coast every year,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s New York or D.C., we’ll continue to have these off-site games.”

How Notre Dame handles recruiting at these neutral site games is a challenge, with the coaches able to give tickets to recruits but unable to have official contact with the players. That said, star Irish commitment Ronald Darby will be in town, and the Irish will unofficially host a slew of recruits and continue to try and make headway into the talent-rich Washington D.C. area, where they’ve struggled to bring in players.

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The Irish descend on America’s capital.

There’s been much made of the fact that Notre Dame is playing a home football game less than 10 miles from Maryland’s campus. But expect the Irish to invade the nation’s capital, turning the home crowd in favor of Notre Dame. While the Irish sacrifice a home Saturday in South Bend by playing these games off site, they’ll have enough events for those gathering to make this feel like home. Here’s a quick rundown of the events planned:

This afternoon Father John Jenkins spoke at a noon luncheon that was MC’d by Irish broadcast legend Don Criqui and featured appearances by Terry Hanratty, Coley O’Brien and Joe Theisman. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly also made appearances at an event open to the public. Tonight, there’ll be a pep rally on the National Mall, which should give a run for the money to the Time Square pep rally held last year in Manhattan. The team and fans will cheer on the Irish at 6:00 p.m.

On game day, at 10:00 a.m. Father Jenkins will be celebrating mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. At noon, the Irish marching band will be playing on the U.S. Capitol lawn, before the Notre Dame alumni association hosts a tailgate event outside of FedEx Field. With the weather report shaping up perfectly, it’ll be a great weekend for Irish alums and fans to gather in another city where ties to the school are strong.