Let's start with the relatively good news: punting. Notre Dame actually holds a net 2-yard-per punt advantage on the opposition so far this year. D.J. Fitzpatrick has dramatically improved his punting and is averaging 40.6 yards per punt for a net of 38.2.ND opponents average 42 yards per punt but only a net average of 36.2. Mostly due to D.J.'s efforts, ND has improved by about 5 yards in the net punting department this year.
D.J. has also managed to put 12 of his 32 punts inside the 20 compared with nine of 32 for the opposition. ND has had two punts blocked (one only partially) and has blocked one (resulting in a TD against Michigan).
All in all, punting (both kicking and returning) is not really the problem.
Place kicking for field goals and extra points is also fairly good. ND has not missed an extra point kick and D.J. is 4-of-6 on field goals. He has missed from 37 and 44 yards, but connected from 45, 26, 23 and 21 yards. Last year he was 12-of-17 (with a long of 50 yards) and was 11-of-14 inside of 50 yards. So, the situation is reasonable here.
The big problem is kickoff returning and coverage. Excluding the two onsides kick efforts at the end of the UM and MSU games, ND's average starting field position after a kickoff is its own 21. The opposition, however, starts from its own 33, including two that have been returned for touchdowns.
On average, therefore, ND gives up about 60 yards per game of field position on the exchange of kickoffs. ND gains about 14 yards for every point it scores and gives up a point for about every 16 yards the defense allows. Sixty yards of field position, therefore, puts the Irish in about a four point hole in each game.
The momentum factor with a long kickoff return is also huge. In games before ND has allowed a kickoff return for a TD or in which ND has not allowed a TD return, the Irish have outscored the opposition 114-53. In games after allowing such a return, ND has been outscored 55-16.
Consider the momentum-killing effect of the two returns this year. Against MSU, the Irish had just run the ball down the Spartans' throat on a long TD drive that involved no passing plays. Spartan players were standing with their hands on their hips trying to catch their breath and ND had a 28-7 lead.
Then Notre Dame gave up the kickoff return for a touchdown to make it 28-14 and a revived MSU defense forced ND to punt. Only a missed field goal by MSU and a forced fumble as MSU drove deep into ND territory allowed the Irish to hang on for a 31-24 win. Without the kickoff return, the final score probably would've been 31-10 or thereabouts.
Against Purdue, the Irish offense had just answered the Boilermakers' opening field goal drive. Then the Irish gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown. A deflated ND offense trotted back onto the field now down a touchdown and netted 8 yards after having moved the ball effectively on the opening drive. Soon Purdue would go up by two scores and was off to the races.
ND simply cannot allow returns like this and have serious hopes of being a bowl team.
Here are some suggestions. First, more first and second-team players need to be in on kickoff coverage. I know the rationale is to avoid injuries to them, but the situation is now too critical to allow anything but sure-tackling players on the field.
Second, Notre Dame should worry more about placement on the kickoff. My heart sank as soon as I saw the kickoff fly that Purdue returned for a touchdown. It was right down the middle of the field and fairly low, setting up an excellent return opportunity.
Mostly it seems as though ND tries to pin the return team against the right sideline, which at least has the effect of cutting off half the field. But ND would be better off trying to kick the ball high to about the 15 or so and trying avoid a big return. We'd be much better off pooching the kickoff and playing to hold the other team around its 25 or so.
Third, Fitzpatrick should probably be doing the kickoffs. He has the ability to hit field goals of 50 yards or more and is averaging over 40 yards per punt. He's got the best chance of creating a reasonable combination of distance and hang time on the kickoffs. Again, I'm sure that the thinking has been to avoid risking an injury to him, but at this point ND probably has to roll the dice.
Notre Dame simply cannot afford any more serious mistakes in this department.