Notre Dame special teams have lone been a major point of contention for Irish fans on forums and blogs across the internet for years, but on Saturday night, it was Notre Dame’s special teams that made the difference in their 41-31 victory over arch rival USC.
Special teams set the tone for the Irish early against the Trojans when freshman wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown used his giant frame to block a USC punt that 5th year senior Amir Carlisle scooped up and took five yards into the endzone midway through the first quarter giving Notre Dame a 21-10 lead just seven minutes into the game.
Notre Dame has not come after a lot of punts so far this year, but they picked the perfect time to do so. “We feel like we have got some guys that are skilled like Equanimeous St. Brown on that team is long and athletic, and we just felt like this week as a week that we wanted to be aggressive when we got the opportunity,” said Brian Kelly after the game.
“We’ve shown some coverages more than we have attacking the punt and we felt like this was a week that we wanted to do it, ” Kelly added. “We got the right circumstances in situations for it where they were backed up. And I just think we have got good players on that team and we wanted to let them go.”
Let them go he did and they responded in a huge way. At the time, it looked like Brown’s blocked punt was going to set the stage for an Irish blowout before defensive lapses and an extended period of the offense being stuck in neutral not only allowed USC back into the game, but allowed the Trojans to enter the 4th quarter with a seven point lead.
Even as the offense and defense each had their periods of struggles on Saturday night, the Irish special teams shined throughout.
CJ Sanders was a factor in the return game with a 25 yard punt return and several solid kick returns including a 33 yarder. His 25 yard punt return didn’t exactly feature the best blocking either as the freshman speedster did a lot of work on his own to get into the open and was just one block that couldn’t be maintained away from going the distance.
Sanders’s return came on the heels of a 3 and out by USC after they recovered Torii Hunter Jr’s critical fumble in the endzone. It set up the Irish with excellent field position at a time when momentum looked like it could swing back in USC’s favor. Unfortunately the Irish offense couldn’t fully capitalize after a holding penalty at the 5 yard line set them back and set up a Justin Yoon field goal.
Yoon, the freshman kicker who struggled with extra points just a bit in his first few weeks, responded by knocking the 32 yarder through the uprights for a 24-10 Irish lead. That wouldn’t be Yoon’s biggest kick of the night though. In the 4th quarter with the Irish clinging to a seven point lead the Irish offense stalled in the redzone with just under six minutes remaining. Kelly sent in his freshman kicker to give the Irish a two score lead and Yoon responded with another near perfect boot. The kick itself wasn’t long or that difficult, but considering Yoon had some mechanical issues just a few weeks ago, it was a big kick and Yoon responded with ice water in his veins.
Yoon’s performance wasn’t lost on his coach either. “Justin Yoon has been money for us. He’s been so consistent,” said Kelly after the game.
Notre Dame’s special teams unit had one more big play in them though. After Deshone Kizer took a sack on third down from the USC 26 yard line in a situation where a sack is one of only two things he absolutely couldn’t do, Brian Kelly elected to punt instead of attempt a 52 yard field goal in the crisp South Bend air. Tyler Newsome placed his punt perfectly inside the five yard line and Devin Butler kept the ball from bouncing into the endzone with text book coverage to pin the Trojans at the 1 yard line. A play like that won’t show up in the a stat line, but it set up USC with 99 yards to go down two scores on the road. The Trojans would escape the shadows of the endzone, but not father time as time ran out on them on that drive.
Newsome wasn’t the only Irish player with some big punts either. In an effort to keep the ball out of Adoree Jackson’s hands as much as possible, Brian Kelly sent the offense onto the field twice on 4th down not with the intention of going for it, but with the intention of keeping USC from sending a return man back to field a punt. Deshone Kizer dropped back behind the line and booted two punts for a 40+ yard average placing both inside the 20 yard line.
Add that all up and Notre Dame’s special teams were indeed very special on Saturday night. The Irish return game didn’t take one the distance, but they did block a punt that was returned for a score, made every kick they had to, and won the field position battle with USC through excellent punting. And CJ Sanders is starting to get more and more comfortable returning kicks and is getting close to that point where you feel like he could take one to the house at any moment.
Notre Dame has plenty of areas to shore up on offense and defense during the bye week, but special teams is an area where for once the Irish won’t have too much work to do.