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ND FOOTBALL: A special advantage

Matt Puglisi | Tuesday, October 11, 2005

In a game that loves its strong-armed quarterbacks, crushing linebackers and fleet-footed receivers, the impact of special teams tends to fade into the gridiron woodwork.

But for as little attention as this aspect of the game typically receives – outside of game-winning field goals or 100-yard kickoff returns – the hidden yardage that always finds its way onto the stat sheet can make all the difference.

With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and a pair of gifted running backs in Reggie Bush and LenDale White coming to town, talk has centered on a couple of main points: how Notre Dame’s offensive leaders – specifically, quarterback Brady Quinn and running back Darius Walker – match up to their Trojan counterparts, and how the Notre Dame defense, a unit that has been bending all season, will weather the hailstorm of the Southern Cal offense.

As important as of these key players will be in determining whether the Irish can snap USC’s 27-game winning streak, special teams also figure to play a prominent role, a fact not lost on Irish cornerback and frequent special teams contributor Terrail Lambert.

“I like [playing on special teams],” Lambert said. “I think a lot of people tend to overlook it, because many games are won and lost on special teams alone, and most people don’t see that.

“And I think that’s why they call special teams ‘special teams.'”

For players used to lining up at “island” positions – spots where most any incredible play or costly mistake is magnified – making the switch to the relative anonymity of special teams can be difficult.

With the Irish coaching staff stressing the significance of solid special teams play from day one, players like Lambert are buying into the philosophy.

“I think coming in I’m starting to realize the importance of that facet of the game because the coaching staff really puts an emphasis on that facet of the game, so I feel pretty good about being on special teams knowing that I’m contributing to the team,” Lambert said. “That was one of my biggest concerns – what can I do for the team.”

Irish coach Charlie Weis said the ability of frontline players on both sides of the ball to bring that same intensity and skill to special teams can only help the team.

“I think it is significant to have guys who turn into special teams performers,” Weis said. “Guys that you can count on, like starters on offense and defense. Guys that are going to know what to do and can play with a high level of knowledge and toughness.”

Although the Trojans are on pace to break a number of offensive college football records, heading into Saturday’s showdown, they have struggled on special teams.

The Irish hold a distinct advantage in a majority of special teams categories, including both kickoff and punt coverage. Through five games, the Trojans have allowed an average of 17 yards per punt return and 26.6 yards per kickoff. The Irish, on the other hand, have been solid in coverage this season, yielding only 5.4 yards per punt return and 19.5 yards per kickoff return.

Notre Dame also has been more effective returning kicks than Southern Cal. With safety Tommy Zbikowski handling the punt return duties, the Irish have picked up 95 punt return yards on seven returns (13.6 yards per return), while Bush has had trouble bringing his explosiveness in the backfield to the return game, gaining only 40 yards on seven returns.

On kickoffs, three different Notre Dame players – receiver David Grimes, running back Justin Hoskins and defensive back Brandon Harris – have seen action, with Grimes’ 93 return yards and 31.0 yards per return leading the Irish. While Bush has once again struggled to make an impact returning kicks – he’s posted just a 17.5 yard average on eight returns – running back Desmond Reed has been particularly effective, racking up 163 yards on only four returns (40.8 yards per return).

Should the Irish continue their comparative dominance in both returns and coverage Saturday, special teams play could be a factor in an Irish upset.