Checking the Narrative: Notre Dame and Field Turf

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.

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  • Avon Domer

    The turf in Notre Dame Stadium is a disaster and simply does not work. It has been replaced numerous times in recent years, including after the USC game this past season, and it remains a shameful embarrassment. I’ve never heard any player (high school, college or pro) complain about playing on Field Turf, so why not go that route? BTW: This comes from a traditionalist who has attended Notre Dame games every year since 1973. I also believe it’s time for Jumbotrons that are not all that big and NEVER SHOW ADVERTISING!

  • Ulric

    I appreciate what you did here, but it’s almost too hard to disentangle all the variables. The turf vs. grass situation is systematically correlated with who you play (and in many cases when you play them).

    Basically, I think you need to decide on some other criteria. That might just be some guy’s opinion. If you want something more statistical, what about injuries? Does ND have more on grass or turf?

    • NDtex

      Injuries would be an impossible metric to measure. If a player suffers a head to head hit that gives him a concussion, that has zero to do with the field.

      Further, ND practices on turf. What if a non-disclosed minor injury happens there and then it happens at a home game. Which field is to blame?

      There have been many professional studies done on this matter and, from what I can recall, there is no general consensus as to which is safer. Like the stats above, it’s a wash.

      If you want to put a lot of stock into who is played when (something I readily admit in the post), I would suggest focusing on the Michigan numbers at the end. I still believe that is largely a wash though.

      • Irishane

        I wrote this Science/Fieldturf article on OFD a couple years ago. Some of it’s dense but might be worth a read if you’re interested in the injury studies (you can skip to the conclusions if that’s easier too).

        • NDtex

          Very nice work gathering all of those resources!

        • trey

          This is good stuff, and I’m wondering now specifically if there is a higher or lower occurrence of hamstring injury on field turf or grass. I initially thought with you about the knees and ankles being a bellwether for this discussion, but Hamites too, could be a factor.

          In the end, though, the grass we have looks like spit, so I’m all on board to rip it out and put in the turf

  • Bayou Irish

    You should track the number of plays and penalties in Colorado now that grass is legal there. Seriously, though, I agree with the comment above that I’ve never heard a player bitch about FieldTurf. To me, it’s a no-brainer, as the pitch is a complete visual disaster come the middle of winter, i.e. Halloween. If we’re recruiting with our helmets and uniforms and playlists now, shouldn’t we give everyone an immaculate surface every Saturday?

    • NDtex

      Yeah, that’s generally why I’m in the “it’s all cosmetic” camp. I think there is nothing more beautiful than a well manicured grass field, but if that isn’t possible at ND for whatever reason, then to hell with it.

      But then again, I haven’t run the defensive numbers yet, so maybe I’ll be swayed!

  • Robert

    Give BK the turf he wants for the team. They spend cash on expansion of the school,so let’s upgrade the field that doesn’t hold up for only 5 of 6 games a year, that should be enough evidence..

  • Mark G

    Unless a new grass field includes a heating system, it will become increasingly difficult to keep a healthy grass field growing from mid-October into November. The days get cooler, but perhaps the bigger impact is that the days let shorter and the sun gets lower. Putting aside South Bend’s seemingly perma-clouds, less direct sun-light is able to hit all of the grass field.

    The last stadium expansion exacerbated this issue, raising the height of the outside walls and making it more difficult for direct sunlight to reach the field. Adding 3 new buildings on the east, west and particularly the south sides of the stadium as part of the cross-roads project will cast long shadows on the grass as the days get shorter. Remember – the sun is only as strong on October 21 as it is on February 21.

    There is a way to run a heating system under the grass field (along with much, much better drainage), to heat the field to a fairly constant temperature through October and November. It is not inexpensive but the technology is not all that new or difficult.

    What I do not know is if a field turf field has to be less crowned than a grass field. If you have been on our field know what I mean – if you are sitting on one sideline you cannot see the feet of the people on the other sideline because the field is crowned from the middle of the field to the sidlines. The crowning from the middle to each end zone appears even more severe – a runner running to an endzone is literally running down hill. I know this is true on every field, but do not know is the crowning is any less severe with field turf.

    • NDtex

      From what I have seen on other fields with turf (my high school and Big House) that I’ve been on, the crowning is consistent. Particularly you will need that for proper drainage as well so water runs down to sidelines

  • Pat

    We are surely moving to turf – ol’ Swarbrick is just being coy.

  • dorny

    Turf in a historic stadium. You people are losing your minds. 7 games a year and they can’t grow grass, but can spend 400 million on buildings. Funny where the priorities are.

    • NDtex

      Classrooms, student centers, labs, music halls, dining areas, faculty offices, and more that doesn’t require specific weather and soil conditions to function?

      I mean, if you want ND to focus on growing a 120 x 53.3 yard patch of grass, I guess that’s cool.

    • Irish Elvis (@IrishElvis)

      C’mon people, it’s right there in the name: God, Country, Notre Dame Grass Field. I don’t understand why this is so difficult.

    • Pat

      Rockne wanted turf but had to settle for grass because turf wasn’t invented yet.

      The priority is to be on par with (or better than) the best, and the surface in Notre Dame Stadium simply hasn’t been living up to that standard. Despite all the nostalgia for the 20th Century – and, boy, was it a good century for Notre Dame football – let’s move into the 21st.

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