Non-offensive?

An overview of Notre Dame's disappointing return units, one critical mistake by the punt coverage team, and the surprising absence of both defensive and special teams touchdowns through nine contests.

The depth of the advantage has eroded over the last 14 seasons, but Notre Dame football teams have generally enjoyed a unique edge vs. opponents when the teams' momentum-changing special teams units hit the field.

Add to that equation equally-crippling defensive scores created by teams' defenses and there have been few seasons over the last 25 in which Notre Dame's collective opponents outscored the Irish in terms of non-offensive touchdowns (interception, fumble, punt and kick returns as well as faked field goals/punts).

Charlie Weis' five Notre Dame squads totaled 18 non-offensive touchdowns. His 62 opponents totaled 15 against the Irish over that same span. Though Weis' teams held a 5-1 edge in punt return touchdowns, the former coach's teams fared poorly in the kick return game, taking just one to the house (2008 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl) while allowing five KR scores over five seasons.

Tyrone Willingham's teams also held an advantage in the non-offensive TD category, notching 15 scores vs. 10 by their opponents. Willingham's final two squads matched their collective opponents in terms of non-offensive scores (6 to 6) but his first group in 2002 absolutely destroyed opponents in the critical category, scoring 9 non-offensive touchdowns while allowing 4 (Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer's stout defense helped Willingham win three of the four games in which the '02 team allowed a non-offensive score).

Through two successful, one mediocre, and two losing seasons, Bob Davie's teams enjoyed a healthy 22 to 11 edge in the category. No Davie-coached team surrendered more non-offensive touchdowns than it scored (the '99 group that finished with a 5-7 record scored 4 and allowed 4); his Fiesta Bowl squad of 2000 enjoyed the largest margin in the category, scoring five while allowing none over 12 contests.

In total, the three coaches and 14 seasons that have followed Lou Holtz in South Bend saw Notre Dame outscore 158 opponents by a 55 to 36 margin in non-offensive touchdowns.

Then there's the 11-season Holtz Era, which deserves a section of its own.

Utter Dominance

Past weapons such as Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail and Allen Rossum contributed greatly to the statistic below, but its still difficult to comprehend:

Skill position speed – football speed, as its referred to by those in the game – dominated the Lou Holtz Era at Notre Dame. Over the course of 11 seasons and 133 games, Holtz's football teams scored 47 non-offensive touchdowns.

While that comparative number sinks in, consider that Holtz defenses and special teams allowed over that same 133-game span…4.

(Embrace that growing rage you feel, fans of modern Notre Dame football, it will keep you warm over the 2010 Bowl season…)

Relevance to November 8, 2010? Through nine games, the 2010 Irish have allowed four non-offensive touchdowns while scoring none.

One of those damaging blows was, of course, Michigan State's game-winning fake field goal in overtime in East Lansing. Two others greatly contributed to the most recent Irish loss, a game in which the Notre Dame defense allowed one touchdown to Tulsa, while the Irish offense and special teams unfortunately followed suit, surrendering a 66-yard INT return near the end of the first half before breaking down to yield a 59-yard punt return TD to the dangerous Damaris Johnson.

In short, Notre Dame's offense scored four touchdowns; Tulsa's scored one…the Irish still lost. For the 2010 Irish, special teams have proven to be more than 1/3 of the game. They've been the decisive factor.

Gross Miscalculation?

Kelly expected his special teams, especially his return units, to provide an instant spark for a team learning how to play the new head coach's method of football. But while the 2010 Irish offense is inconsistent and one-dimensional; the team's defense both inconsistent and ill-timed in its penchant for the crucial breakdown; the Irish special teams, notably the return units, have been, in a word: terrible

"I'm excited about our return game. We're going to be dynamic there. We've got some dynamic players." – Head Coach Brian Kelly, August 7, 2010.

Kelly wasn't alone in his supposition as I figured the Irish could cobble together a few quality return men this year as well. Players such as Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, Armando Allen, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith (fast, but much like John Goodman, proved to be too much of a "straight-liner") and Dan McCarthy (rarely healthy) all showed pre-season promise, while Barry Gallup was solid, and in one instance, spectacular, in limited action last season. Bennett Jackson was lauded by coaches and recruiting analysts alike as a player's whose speed could yield immediate results.

I ignored the fact that those same players have been rendered largely ineffective over the past three seasons in the return game…make that the last eight seasons, as other than accomplished punt returner Tom Zbikowski in 2005, nearly every Irish return man since Vontez Duff left campus following the 2003 season has failed to rise above the morass of mediocrity. (The dual threat Duff posted both a kick and punt return TD for Willingham's '02 Irish).

The Irish haven't benefitted from a regular season kick return touchdown since 2002, though Armando Allen brought back a 96-yard kick return in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl after the contest had long been decided.

Since the end of the 2002 season, Notre Dame's kick return team has ranked 75th, 87th, 89th, 39th, 94th, 53rd and 66th nationally with a No. 76 ranking heading into Game 10 this Saturday.

Like the 2003 through 2009 teams before them, I'm not sure the bulk of the blame lies with the team's return man of choice, but rather with the uninspired group in front of him.

The Irish have employed Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson as kick returners. Jackson has six of the team's seven best returns this season (43, 41, 38, 28, 25, and 25 yards); though the freshman seems to be more fast than quick and sudden in space, he's the team's best option, especially with Theo Riddick out due to an ankle injury.

Are the regulars in front of him also the best men for their jobs? Can you recall gaping hole paved for an Irish return man this season? Last season? Would an untested tight end (blocker in space) such as Jake Golic or proven commodity like senior Duval Kamara (an accomplished move blocker if there is one on the Irish roster) fare better in the role than those currently failing to provide an opening up front?

Remarkably, Barry Gallup's 52-yard return at Michigan in 2009 – the result of heart, quickness and individual effort – remains tied for longest regular season kick return in nearly eight years.

The Irish have searched for the best man for the job to catch the kick…how about another look at those charged with creating a crease?

While the team's kick return unit requires multiple changes, its punt return group might benefit from just one. Senior Armando Allen broke free for a 38-yard punt return in the season's opener. Since then, Allen hurt his hand (I suspect that's why he was pulled from PR duties by the middle of Week Three) and the role was assumed by junior wide receiver John Goodman (who had a 24-yard punt return in 2009).

Goodman has returned eight punts; offered a fair catch on 17 others and fumbled once (recovered by Tulsa). 12 punts were downed by the opposing coverage unit or bounced out of bounds. Good man has totaled 19 yards on those 8 returns with a long return of 13 yards (vs. MSU). This seven other returns have resulted in an aggregate six yards.

Unless no one else on the team can catch a punted football, the Irish staff should look for someone else to provide a spark at the position as they attempt to become bowl eligible in November.

Bridging the Gap

While the Irish kick and punt return teams have faltered, their coverage cohorts have, with one glaring exception, dominated.

Prior to Damaris Johnson's aforementioned 59-yard punt return TD, Mike Elston's punt coverage units had allowed two punt return yards - total - in the 2010 season; best among 120 FBS programs.

Elston's kick coverage group has yet to suffer a breakdown and currently ranks 14th allowing just 19.21 yards per return. More important, no team has returned an Irish kickoff for more than 36 yards and only four of nine opponents have enjoyed a single return in excess of 30 yards. None of the nine has averaged better than 25 yards per kick return over the course of a single game.

Elston's unit won't lead the nation as did Brian Polian's 2008 group (headed by David Bruton and Mike Anello, two of the program's best gunners of all time), but the Irish kick coverage unit has proven to be among the best coached groups of the '10 season.

His punt coverage crew had one costly (and sloppy) breakdown. Two players up front lost their technique when breaking down to tackle Johnson and the result was a special teams dagger in the heart that sparked Tulsa's upset win.

Statistically solid, inconsistent punter Ben Turk has dropped 18 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line vs. just three touchbacks. The number is admittedly skewed as few of Turk's offerings have been downed inside the 10-yard line and two of his touchbacks were head-shaking efforts kicked inside the opponents' 45-yard line (in other words, his punt and resulting touchback netted in the neighborhood of 18 yards).

Elston, Turk and the Irish punt coverage unit have an immediate chance at redemption as the nation's No. 1 punt return group – the Utah Utes – will bring a staggering 20.76 average with 3 PR TD to Saturday's contest in South Bend. Utah has a KR TD to its credit as well while ranking No. 14 overall in average kick return yardage.

We'll know shortly if the darting return by Tulsa's Damaris Johnson's was an aberration, or if the South Bend late-season swoon has afflicted Elston's formerly solid crew as well.


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