Los Angeles, CA (UHND.com) – Kickoff to today’s much anticipated Notre Dame-USC game is now just hours away and all week long Notre Dame’s defense versus the USC offense has been debated ad naseum, but the one unit that really could decide Notre Dame’s fate later tonight is the special teams – a unit that has been on a roller coaster all season.
When USC traveled to South Bend last year the special teams played a huge role, but got overshadowed by a couple of last minute drives by two very explosive offenses. In last year’s contest Notre Dame returned a punt for a touchdown and missed a fourth quarter field in a game they would go on to lose by three.
This year, special teams figure to play just as big, if not bigger a role in determining the outcome. Notre Dame’s kicking struggles have been well documented – the Irish have missed three extra points in the last two games. Carl Gioia has struggled down the stretch which prompted Charlie Weis to hold an open competition last week in practice. Gioia was said to win the competition handily, but the Irish still missed an extra point last weekend against Army.
The return game for the Irish hasn’t been to kind to the Irish either. Notre Dame has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Tyrone Willingham’s first season as head coach and the trend has continued this year. The Irish had a few nice kick returns this year, but David Grimes is only averaging 26.6 yards a return and George West just 20.3 a return.
Both have shown some signs of having a big return in them, but the longest return between the two is 50 yards – coming three weeks ago against North Carolina.
The punt return game has been slightly better with senior Tommy Zbikowski returning a punt for a touchdown against the Tar Heels, but outside of that return, the Irish have not had much success in the punt return game and have turned the ball over twice on punt returns this year.
Compounding matters for the Irish are some poor outings covering opponents kicks the last few weeks. Army’s return men made the Notre Dame coverage units look bad last week with several nice returns and three week’s ago North Carolina’s Brandon Tate made a tackle-breaking 90 yard return for a touchdown.
All of this points to special teams being vital for the Irish this week if they are to march into the Coliseum and knock off the Trojans. Notre Dame has to win the special teams battle in order to win this game and must eliminate the simple mistakes they’ve made in recent weeks such as missing extra points, not wrapping up on kick returns, and turning the ball over in the return game.
With the firepower that USC has on offense, Notre Dame cannot make it easy on the Trojan offense by giving up good field position on kickoffs. If Notre Dame gives USC short fields after each Irish score, the Trojans won’t have much trouble responding.
Getting the ball into the end zone on kickoffs would be huge for the Irish this week, but on the season Notre Dame kickers have recorded just 13 touchbacks all year on 67 attempts (19%). Last week the short kick-offs were particularly apparent which led to the nice returns by Army.
Having a sound kicking game will also be extremely important for the Irish. You can’t beat a top 5 opponent on the road if you’re missing extra points and short field goals. A missed 35 yard field goal last year proved to be fairly important.
The Irish don’t have to get a score in the return game to beat USC, but having solid returns to set the offense up with decent field position is a must. Another Zbikowski punt return for a touchdown would also be nice, but having an error free game handling punts with some solid returns will also do the trick.
The one area of special teams where the Irish have faired extremely well all season has been in the punting game. Senior Geoff Price has been sound all year long has the ability to give the Irish the edge in the field position game. Price is averaging over 45 yards a punt this year and has placed 12 of his 42 punts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line.
Sure, whether or not Notre Dame can slow down Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith will be important, but if the Irish play the kind of special teams they have the past few weeks they will already be at a huge disadvantage.