Special teams miscues prove costly once more for Notre Dame in regular season finale
Marek Mazurek | Saturday, November 26, 2016
LOS ANGELES — There have been many defining features of Notre Dame’s 2016 season. Some are good, like a budding young receiving corps and consistent effort. Most are bad: Missed tackles, poor play calling and the habit of giving up leads have haunted the Irish all year long.
Yet the most prevalent, and perhaps the most costly, blemish on the 2016 season was the special teams unit.
Emphasis on the “was,” because Notre Dame’s season came to a forgettable end Saturday in Los Angeles. For the first time all year, the Irish lost a game by more than eight points, and poor special teams play was a big reason why.
That fact was evident not only to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, but Trojan head coach Clay Helton: He also said the key to the Trojans’ victory came from their superior special teams play.
“Keys to today’s game: I thought that any time in this weather, you’re hoping for non-offensive touchdowns, and we got three of them,” Helton said. “That’s like an early Christmas present.”
The first in a long line of miscues for Notre Dame came with 1:38 left in the first half. Backed up on their own 10 yard-line, the Irish looked to punt and hold the Trojans on one last drive before the half. Graduate student Scott Daly snapped the ball over junior punter Tyler Newsome’s head, and the ball rolled out of the end zone in what would have been a safety. Luckily for the Irish, the officials blew the play dead, as substitutions were still taking place.
On the next snap, the Irish special teams unit messed up — and this time, it counted. Newsome’s punt sailed to the USC 45-yard line, where it was caught by Trojans junior defensive back Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson cut to his left, shook a tackle and took the punt 55 yards for a USC touchdown, putting the Trojans up 17-7.
Then, with a little over a minute left on the clock, the Irish offense looked to get those points back and gain momentum before the half. But on his second pass of the drive, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer delivered a pass straight to Trojans redshirt sophomore defensive back Ajene Harris, who ran the short 33 yards into the end zone.
Two mistakes in quick succession changed a modest 10-7 halftime lead into a commanding 24-7 advantage for USC. One the Irish were unable to come back from.
Helton pointed to Jackson’s return before halftime as a key to the USC victory.
“To be able to give us the spark on a sloppy day — that game got closer for a second there — and to be able to put it in [Jackson’s] hands offensively, a big-time player, we needed an explosive play,” Helton said. “He spoke volumes today.”
Kelly addressed his whole team on the field before heading into the locker room, and the Irish showed signs of making a comeback in the third quarter. Irish freshman Julian Love forced a fumble on Notre Dame’s first punt of the half and another freshman, Troy Pride Jr., recovered it on the only stellar special teams moment of the contest. On the ensuing drive, Notre Dame got a touchdown to bring the game back within 10 points.
Despite the forced fumble, the same old special teams mistakes shut down the Irish comeback attempt as quickly as it started. Near the end of the third quarter, Jackson took an Irish kickoff at the 3-yard line. The Belleville, Illinois, native exploded down the sideline, broke a tackle and hurdled the kicker on his way to a 97-yard score to add to the Trojans lead at 38-21.
“I knew right when the kick was going off. I was thinking I was overdue for a kick return,” Jackson said. “I was thinking I needed to get something. I just got scored on, so I had to make up for it.”
Unfortunately for Irish fans, Jackson did more than make up for his getting beat in coverage on Notre Dame’s previous touchdown. In addition to the two special teams touchdowns, Jackson added a receiving touchdown to his stat sheet and finished the game with 291 all-purpose yards.
“The returns and reception were just great blocks by everybody,” Jackson said. “They made it look easier than it was. I knew something special would happen when I trust them and just follow the block and run toward them. They set things up, and it makes a highlight play.”
Love admitted Jackson’s athleticism gave the Irish special teams problems.
“I played against a couple guys who are really fast and good returners. He was a really good returner,” Love said. “Just another return. It’s unfortunate.
“We’ll just have to play it better next time.”
That next time for Notre Dame’s special teams will have to wait until next season, when the Irish take the field against Temple on Sept. 2, 2017. But with the poor play of the special teams unit all year, Kelly said coaching changes are a real possibility.
“Everything’s on the table,” Kelly said. “I’ve always felt the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. We need to clearly look at where that mix is.”