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Bending, not breaking

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, October 6, 2004

In two of their last three games, the Irish have allowed a kick return to go for a touchdown. Saturday against Stanford, defending the return will become an even greater task.

The Cardinal, which ranks first in the Pac-10 in kick returns and third in the nation, is led by speedy T.J. Rushing. The junior cornerback has returned eight kicks for 374 yards this season, good for a 37.6 average. His average is first in the nation.

Rushing will present challenges for the Irish special teams, which gave up a 100-yard touchdown return to Purdue’s Jerome Brooks after Notre Dame cornerback Ambrose Wooden missed a tackle that would have saved the touchdown.

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham attributed the touchdown to a lack of technique on the part of the Irish unit as a whole.

“We didn’t hold in the correct manner,” Willingham said. “All of the little things that go along with it to create a big play, we didn’t do well. It is usually a breakdown in your lane structure that you don’t cross the space at the right time, you don’t push and take the guy back into the wedge. And [Purdue’s] was more of a double team at a couple of places. You don’t break or penetrate the double teams; therefore, you open and widen that lane and allow him a chance to get up in there and we didn’t constrict it.”

Against Michigan State Sept. 18, the Irish gave up an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to DeAndra Cobb. So what happened then?

“Very much the same thing [as the return by Purdue],” Willingham said.

Rushing has already run one kickoff back for a touchdown, a 99-yarder against Brigham Young. Against USC last week, he had a 54-yard return as well. Marcus McCutcheon is the Cardinal’s other returner, and he is averaging 24.3 yards per return with three returns on the season.

Willingham said the Irish will not necessarily make personnel changes in special teams, despite the Cardinal’s three big plays this season.

“You constantly try to find the right personnel to put in the right positions to get them to execute the job, but it still comes down to execution,” Willingham said. “And sometimes you search and the guy behind that guy is not as good as the guy you recognize. And as a coach it means you have to coach our guys better to do their job.”

Notre Dame is aware of Rushing’s game-changing abilities. Willingham said his team is preparing accordingly.

“We are very much aware [that Stanford is third in the country in kick returns]-I think it is T.J. Rushing, is dynamic in his return ability,” Willingham said. “He has done a very good job against some other very good teams, so we’ll have to put in some safeguards to make sure he does not have that kind of success against us.”

Also on special teams, Stanford has blocked three punts and one field goal in four games, including a blocked punt they returned for a touchdown last week against Washington.

“You always focus on those things,” Willingham said when asked if he was concerned about the Cardinal special teams.

Meanwhile, the Irish have allowed an average of 18.4 yards per kick return. They have also blocked one punt and had two blocked.