When it comes to marquee, Top-10 matchups in football, turnovers and special teams often are the major difference in the outcome.
George Atkinson III and the kickoff return game might need a breakout effort at Oklahoma this weekend.
Throughout the Lou Holtz era (1986-96), special teams excellence often was pivotal in such contests. During the national title year alone in 1988, Irish special teams scored all 19 points in the opening game 19-17 win over Michigan. In the 31-30 victory over No. 1 Miami, the game turned when it was 21-21. The Irish stopped a fake punt at mid-field and went ahead two plays later.
This Saturday at Oklahoma, the Irish special teams might not be able to win the game, but it has to find a way not to lose it, especially with “hidden yardage” in the return games:
• Oklahoma is No. 3 in the country in kickoff return yardage with a 31.15 average. Notre Dame is 93rd at 19.20.
• Oklahoma is No. 6 in the country in punt return yardage with a 17.9 average on 17 returns. Notre Dame is 111th (among 120 teams) with a 2.83 average on seven returns.
• Last week against Kansas, Oklahoma’s Roy Finch had a 100-yard kickoff return for a score while Justin Brown tallied on a 90-yard punt return. Last week against BYU, Notre Dame freshman DaVonte’ Neal, with zero blocking, saw his two punt returns net minus-3 yards. George Atkinson III, one of the nation’s elite kickoff return men last year with TDs against Michigan State and USC, saw his two kickoff returns against the Cougars gain 20 and 17 yards, and his average this year on eight returns dropped to 19.4.
• On 16 punt returns, the Sooners’ Brown averages nearly as many yards (19.0) as Notre Dame on kickoffs (19.2). Even when you subtract his 90-yard return versus the Jayhawks, Brown’s 15 other punt returns average a robust 14.3 yards. That’s the difference between starting a possession from one’s own 35-yard line to near mid-field.
• Also last week, Irish sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza, whose late field goals helped seal the 20-17 win over Purdue and put the Stanford game into overtime, missed from 40 and 28 yards. His 24-yard boot just did inch inside the left upright and made the difference in the 17-14 victory.
• The Irish have allowed only six punt returns this year and rank 30th in that category, but are 92nd in kick returns defense, with the opposition averaging 23.2 yards on 21 returns.
Notre Dame’s 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year Austin Collinsworth was lost for this season because of summer shoulder surgery, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly points to two other major setbacks from the secondary this year which have hurt the overall units.
"When we lost [Lo] Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players full time on the defensive side of the ball (including Matthias Farley, Zeke Motta and KeiVarae Russell), we lost some really good cover guys," Kelly said. "We're really thin there. And we're not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement. This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.
"We're still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need. And that's just the fact. We're playing some young guys there that have to get better. But I like where we're going to go. I think our punt return is going to be really good. I think we're going to have some guys that we'll be able to get on that team."
New tight ends/special teams coordinator Scott Booker said in the preseason that a foremost priority was to find better blocking for Neal on returns to provide just enough of a crease to help change the game.
“We’re working hard at trying to work on our tie-up and tie those guys up at the line of scrimmage — and then put someone out there that can go vertical,” Books said this August about improving on last year’s punt return average that was last in the nation until Michael Floyd’s first return in the bowl game went for 41 yards.
Alas, the Irish have been mainly in “punt safe” mode, providing neither a threat to block the punt nor return it.
"We're fielding the ball much better than we did last year," Kelly said. "We need to go north and south."
When Notre Dame traveled to Michigan State on Sept. 15 to play the then No. 10 Spartans, special teams did have an appreciable effect on Notre Dame’s 20-3 win. Brindza converted both of his field-goal attempts and four of his five kickoffs were touchbacks.
Particularly outstanding was punter Ben Turk, who had two 50-yard punts and pinned MSU back inside its 20 four times. The Spartans’ starting field position in the first half was from their 11, 25, 27, 23, 25 and 6 — or its own 19-yard line on average.
In the second half the Spartans’ seven series started from their 25, 12, 21, 4, 33, 25 and 29 — or their 21-yard line on average.
Turnovers and special teams. In its last two games away from Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish had zero turnovers (at Michigan State and versus Miami in Chicago). A third straight would go a long way toward potentially upsetting the 11-point favorite Sooners.
The question is whether special teams also can provide a significant assist or boost.
"We are who we are right now," said Kelly of the special teams. "We're clearly disappointed. We have to do a better job. We have to give George Atkinson more room. We've got to do a better job — and we can. We just have to be better at that area right now."