After the Crossroads Project for Notre Dame Stadium was revealed, most fans were rather disappointed that no clear answer was given by Jack Swarbrick on whether or not field turf was coming. Today, Swarbrick is still sticking to that story and we won’t get a final answer until May. In that article though, Jack mentioned how he didn’t have a clear consensus on the matter at all — even from the players on the team.
For me, this seemed a bit shocking. Has Jack not seen the team faceplant every November on seemingly every cut they make? Wouldn’t all the players, regardless of their position, be rather sick of such a surface?
Personally, I’ve never really cared one way or the other as to what surface is in the stadium. I like grass, but if it hurts the team, I want it torn out yesterday and that seems to be the current narrative surrounding the playing surface at ND Stadium these days: it’s a disadvantage to Brain Kelly’s offense.
So that got me thinking, what do the numbers say on the matter? Is there really that clear of a difference between playing on grass or on field turf?
Granted, ND has a rather small sample size of field turf games in comparison to their home grass, but I figured, that, if the difference was really that striking, it would be even more readily apparent. Basically, I want to see if the numbers are confirming what I believe my eyes see.
First, let’s just start with some basic splits and see how Notre Dame performs on any grass surface in comparison to field turf in the Brain Kelly era (10 games to 42). All values given in this post are averages:
Overall, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of difference. ND actually has gained more yards on grass, but apparently play just a couple of plays “faster” on turf as they are able to run more plays (a Kelly offense staple with ideal conditions/personnel). Still though, the difference is quite small between both.
Even turnover differences appear to be negligible. Should the grass monster really be eating ND players alive, you would assume there would be more turnovers, but there are actually more turnovers on field turf surfaces.
But then again, the question here is ND Stadium’s grass, so let’s do an additional split comparing ND on any turf surface, their home grass, and any away/neutral grass surface (10, 25, and 17 games respectively):
All differences are yet again negligible. There still doesn’t appear to be a clear advantage/disadvantage to any surface.
But what about as time goes on? Surely all offensive numbers take a noise dive when we hit November, right?
Let’s take a look at those splits, focusing purely on the yards gained as it’s rather clear the surface isn’t really affecting the plays called (and number of them) or the turnovers (and to be honest, I didn’t want to make 6 more charts showing that):
Notre Dame actually gets better at home as time goes on and worse in away/neutral locations with October being the only big outlier (HI, MIAMI!). I’d actually argue this has more to do with the quality of opponents that Notre Dame plays rather than the fields they are playing on. ND’s schedule is always front-loaded with the easier opponents coming into South Bend in November. The main exception to this is the final game of the season at Stanford or Southern Cal, which accounts for the sharp drop in away grass performances.
Now, there is one opponent that Notre Dame has played all four years of the Kelly era who’s away stadium has field turf: Michigan. With an even two games at each place, perhaps this will be what shows the real difference?
Now we see some bigger differences. The Irish definitely have bigger offensive games on the turf of the Big House, get far more plays in, but also cough the ball up more often. Still though, it’s hard to say this is still enough evidence that field turf is clearly a superior playing surface. After all, it’s just two games out of 52.
However, these numbers aren’t proof that Notre Dame should stop at nothing to ensure Rock’s House remains a grass surface either. All this is that the debate about grass vs turf is much ado about nothing and bringing offensive performance into the debate is a fool’s errand (hey, I’ll admit guilt, I was surprised by these results).
In the end, the field turf vs grass debate will boil down to a matter of personal preferences and a cosmetic choice for the stadium.
…unless the defensive numbers have a different story to tell. However, that will have to wait for another day here at HLS.