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Saturday May Be Last Irish Game with Natural Grass at Notre Dame Stadium

One of the most controversial topics is back!

There is a small possibility that this Saturday’s game against Utah could be the last game played inside Notre Dame Stadium with natural grass underneath the player’s cleats.

This topic was brought up last week at a press conference when head coach Brian Kelly finally let his feelings known on the subject:

"The offense, obviously, is such that we like to play fast. And I think it’s pretty clear that that surface (FieldTurf) plays very fast. It’s not going to be my decision," Kelly said. "I know that I’ll have my say, and that’s all it will be. I want the best for our football players. I want the best for our team and the best for the kind of offense that we run. I know we’ve been able to play really fast on those surfaces. Don’t know that that’s going to be enough to push it over the top, but it’s more about the kind of team we’re putting together."

Finally, we proponents of the alternative surface have the big guy in our corner.

Shortly before the season started I wrote a passionate piece about why Notre Dame should switch to FieldTurf and my reasons included: the current natural surface is a mess, the artificial surface looks just as good if not better, and the team will play faster on it.

That piece itself was rather long winded but that was the overall gist of my argument.

Since that was published I have had many people make their opinions known on this matter and those who favor keeping the natural surface make statements that fall into three categories.

1. Misunderstanding

This argument basically perverts the reasons that people want to see a change in the playing surface. Here are two specific examples taken from a message board:

"Notre Dame is going to need more than FieldTurf to start winning again."

"If he [Kelly] thinks he can't win games just because the field isn't turf then why did he want to come to Notre Dame? It does not make any difference if it's turf or grass."

Let’s get this straight: we’re not promoting a switch to FieldTurf because we believe that the natural grass is some enormous problem or that a natural grass surface has been what's holding the team back during this era of mediocrity at Notre Dame. We surely don’t expect the team to suddenly become national contenders if it is ever put in place either.

What we do expect is the team to gain a little bit of an advantage by playing on the surface, specifically because of the offensive system the team is trying to perfect.

It’s no secret that teams are a little bit faster on FieldTurf and that is something that I would like to see as a Notre Dame fan. This is exactly what Brian Kelly is trying to say with his comments on this subject.

Does anyone take issue with that?

Others will argue that both teams have to play on the same surface so it shouldn’t really matter, but this argument doesn’t do much for me.

The Irish could play on a concrete parking lot, but at least both teams have to, right? Of course, this viewpoint neglects that Brian Kelly favors FieldTurf and that Notre Dame currently has fast athletes and wants to become even faster.

Does anyone really think Oregon would prefer to play on the grass at Notre Dame Stadium instead of the FieldTurf at Autzen Stadium?

Sure you could say that the Ducks are so good that it wouldn’t matter, but this misses the point.

As a major college program you have a decision to make and Oregon has decided to build a super fast team with a spread offense, and FieldTurf is their surface of choice. Right now, Brian Kelly is trying to implement the same philosophy and he has identified the shaggy and slippery grass at Notre Dame Stadium as a problem and FieldTurf as a solution.

Again, this is not some sort of "magic" potion, but it is about playing to your strengths and providing your team and players with the best options available. Kelly said this much in his press conference as he wants the best for his team. As a major college football program, the University of Notre Dame should be able to provide that.

All these snarky comments about how FieldTurf won’t help are ill-advised. Plenty of professionals think it will help, Brian Kelly thinks it will, and there’s plenty of evidence that teams play faster on FieldTurf, or at least that the Notre Dame surface slows players down and is a hindrance to fielding a fast spread offense.

2. Tradition

I understand where people are coming from with this, but I don’t consider a natural grass playing surface as one of the major traditions at Notre Dame.

Plenty of people will disagree with my opinion, and there is really nothing I can do to persuade those who favor the natural grass. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

But I will say this: I think there are certain "traditions" that are holding the football team back and preventing them from joining the rest of the modern college world.

I know, I’ll say Notre Dame doesn’t want to be like everyone else, but really this line of thinking has been taken to such an extreme and has been ingrained in South Bend for years that it’s very frustrating and counter-productive in some instances.

I’ll admit that there are many traditions that are completely off-limits at Notre Dame. The Band of the Fighting Irish, the 80 year-old stadium, the helmets, the academics…these are truly part of what makes Notre Dame special and separates Our Lady from the rest of the college football world.

But the university and its fans have become so obsessed with tradition, staying classy, and keeping things in a sealed vacuum that it has blinded everyone to a better future, at least as far as the football team is concerned.

Keep important traditions, make new traditions and look to the future. That should be a Notre Dame motto to live by, not "Sorry, but nothing is ever changing."

3. Injury Concerns

Many commented and voiced concerns about the increased risk of injuries with a switch to FieldTurf. This is something that is of great importance and needs to be taken seriously, yet it is difficult to know for sure if FieldTurf definitely increases the risk of injury.

Would Brian Kelly actively promote the installation of FieldTurf if he was aware of the increased risk it put on his players?

Would Oregon, Nebraska, Ohio State and countless other universities continue to use FieldTurf if this was the case?

Would Notre Dame continue to use FieldTurf in their indoor and outdoor practice facilities if the surface was detrimental to its athletes health? Have we seen an increase in injuries since the Irish began using FieldTurf two and a half years ago?

Are these schools only interested in saving money?

The NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel published a report in March of 2010 explaining that players are 27 percent more likely to sustain a lower extremity injury on FieldTurf as well as an 88 percent increased risk of ACL injuries.

The AP reported, "A close look at the panel's data may not have much effect on NFL teams who know they can save money on maintenance in the long run by using FieldTurf rather than grass. The study estimated that if every stadium with grass were to switch to FieldTurf, that would result in only five additional ACL injuries per season across the NFL because of the infrequency of the injury."

The NFL’s report is strongly challenged by FieldTurf whose own studies into high school and college uses of their product through researchers at Montana State found virtually no increase in risk of injury.

For instance, the Montana State study found small increases in lower limb injuries, but lower incidences of ligament and muscle tears, and groin pulls and tears.

What’s more, the NCAA’s own Injury Surveillance System chronicled two seasons of soccer and came away with this conclusion after researching thousands of hours on both surfaces: "There were no major differences in the incidence, severity, nature or cause of match injuries sustained on new generation artificial turf and grass by either male or female players."

What we do know is that there needs to be more studies done on FieldTurf and the other artificial surfaces being used such as AstroPlay, Matrix RealGrass, Sportexe and the several other hybrid surfaces like DD GrassMaster.

Will Notre Dame Actually Make the Switch?

To some this a big change, to others it is not.

For me, I want to see the change because it could give the Irish players a small advantage on game day and more importantly, I want to see the University embrace something new without people having an aneurysm.

This isn’t about change for change’s sake.

This isn’t, "Hey, let’s change the color of the helmets just to spite the old traditionalists!"

What this is about is implementing something that might help this team take advantage of its speed in a new offense. No, it is not a wonderful cure-all for Notre Dame’s problems, but it is something that the head coach believes could benefit the program.

I say let’s give it a shot.

Now, sound off!