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Not so special teams

Chris Federico | Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The experts say special teams can make the difference in two football games on average every season. That lesson is becoming obvious to the Irish this year.

While the kicking and return games have been adequate for the Irish through the year, they have allowed some costly returns.

“[Special teams] has hurt immensely. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons why we’re where we’re at right now,” said Irish assistant coach Buzz Preston, who coaches running backs but is also in charge of special teams. “Because we are giving up field position, and we’re giving up big plays, and we can’t afford that.”

After scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 3:32 to play in the game against Boston College last Saturday, the Irish allowed a 42-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. The Eagles returned the kick to their own 49-yard line to help set up the eventual game-winning 26-yard Sandro Sciortino field goal.

“We’re just not executing,” Preston said. “We’re not doing the things that we need to be. We’re not kicking the ball real well. We’re not executing the coverage scheme.”

The Eagles also returned two other kickoffs past the 35-yard line and had a 43-yard punt return against Notre Dame. Twice, it was up to Irish punter and kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick to make a touchdown saving tackle.

“On coverage, I’m just basically the safety, and I’m supposed to help out with any leaks in the coverage,” Fitzpatrick said. “If things happen where it doesn’t go the right way, I just have to be there to make the tackle.”

Yielding good field position on kicks and punts to their opponents has hurt the Irish all season. Long punt returns to inside the Irish 10-yard line set up touchdowns in both the Michigan and Pittsburgh games.

“Special teams is such a big decider in field position,” Fitzpatrick said. “Sometimes it’s the punter’s fault by kicking it in the wrong direction or too short and not giving the team enough time to get down