Who Will Be Special?

The predictions for Monday's Fiesta Bowl generally range from a close Notre Dame win to a razor thin Ohio State victory. Whatever side of the guessing game one is on, there is a common thread: the game is going to be close and decided by a few critical plays in key moments.

If this holds true, special teams could go a long way in determining the winner of the contest. Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis has made no secret about the importance of special teams for the Irish and how that area, more than anything, can turn a program quickly around. The Buckeyes also place the value of this unit near the top of their bowl preparations.

"You can look at every bowl game and every big game," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "There is always going to be a play or two or three in special teams that may have changed the momentum of the game. We haven't talked too little about it. We've been talking about it everyday. Special teams will be huge."

For Notre Dame, the time off between the end of the regular season and the Fiesta Bowl allows kicker/punter D.J. Fitzpatrick to heal from an injury sustained during the Syracuse game when an Orange player flew into his leg on a field goal attempt. Fitzpatrick did not look his normally reliable self one week later in the Stanford game when the senior missed two field goals and an extra point. But it appears that all systems are a go for Monday's big game.

"I've had some time to heal up," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm 100% for this game and ready to go."

Fitzpatrick will have to deal with one of the nation's best kickoff and punt return duos. Wide receivers Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes are a threat every time they touch the ball. Ginn this season has scored a touchdown in both areas while Holmes actually averages more yards per punt return than the speedy sophomore. Some more eye-popping numbers: in just two season, Ginn is already the Big Ten career leader in punt returns for touchdowns with five. It's a deadly combination that has the Irish's full attention.

"When you take those two starting wide receivers and put them back as both the kickoff returners and punt returners, every time you kick the ball there is a potential for a touchdown," Weis said. "That is the first area of concern because the easiest way to lose a game is by making a mistake on special teams. You have to respect both returners because if you don't, you could be in for a long day."

"We all know that special teams is an equal slice of the pie when it comes to offense and defense in a game like this, especially when you have Santonio Holmes and Teddy Ginn to kick to back there," Fitzpatrick said. "We've had a lot of focus on that and ready to take on that challenge."

Notre Dame's punt return man is not exactly chopped liver. Tom Zbikowski earned some honorable mention All-American notice for his game-changing play on special teams. The hard-charging junior safety took two punts back to the house this season for touchdowns and averaged an astounding 14.6 yards per return. Tressel can see evidence that the Irish make special teams one of their top priorities.

"That's why I'm impressed with Notre Dame because they are so fundamentally sound," Tressel said. "That Zbikowski has changed around a few ball games not just with the touchdowns he scores but putting them in good field position at crucial times."

If it comes down to a field goal kicking contest, the edge might go to Ohio State's Josh Huston. The sixth-year senior has been on the money this season, making 20-of-24 field goal attempts, which is good for 5th in the nation with an average of 1.82 FG's per game. More impressive is that Huston has not missed from 45 yards and in. The four misses came from 46, 49, and two from 50 yards. Huston's long in 2005 was from 47 yards. Fitzpatrick is 11-of-17 for the year with his longest of the season coming from 48 yards. If the predictions hold true, the Fiesta Bowl could come down to the foot of either kicker.


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