SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame’s frustration with its lack of production on special teams boiled over against Pittsburgh on Sept. 24.
With the Panthers pinned on their 10-yard line at the start of the second half, the Irish gambled. In trying to block a punt, they were flagged for roughing the kicker and Pitt marched 90 yards for a touchdown.
The risk of a penalty in the 15-12 win wouldn’t have been necessary if the Irish weren’t 117th in punt return yards, averaging 0.3 yards per return.
You feel compelled to make a play, so you call a block against Pittsburgh and you rough the punter, special teams coordinator Mike Elston said. You’re trying to make something happen. You’re trying to get something positive going with that unit, and you are too aggressive. It’s very frustrating.
Notre Dame began the season hoping receiver Theo Riddick would boost the return game, but after a poor showing in the season opener, the Irish reverted to former Bishop Dwenger standout John Goodman to field punts.
Notre Dame (3-2), which plays host to Air Force (3-1) on Saturday, hasn’t had its special teams problems exclusively in punt returns.
The Irish have missed four field goals, kicked off out of bounds and have struggled to stop returns, giving up an average of 21.7 yards on punt returns and 22 yards on kickoff returns.
We got to coach better, coach Brian Kelly said. Everybody wants to put this on Mike Elston, but there are six other coaches that are responsible for those teams. There are lieutenants on each one of those units, and each one of them has to be accountable to do a better job. Having said that, I think we all know on the other end what players have to play better. But we have to coach better, too.
Special teams problems leaking into the kicking game are the most surprising.
Before the season, senior David Ruffer connected on 23 of his 24 field goal attempts. This season, he’s 3 for 7 after converting on 1 of 3 tries against Purdue.
He hit the ball pretty good, Kelly said. I’m not pushing the panic button.
The Irish also aren’t ready to panic about freshman Kyle Brindza’s struggle to get more distance on kickoffs against Purdue.
Kyle took a step back last week in his performance against Purdue. We got to find out why, Elston said. He’s been awesome, up until last week. He understands, and he will do a better job this week.
Notes: Offensive tackle Tate Nichols had shoulder surgery Friday and will not play this season, and linebacker Anthony Rabasa is scheduled to have shoulder surgery, Kelly said Wednesday. Linebacker Danny Spond (hamstring) will be available in a backup role this weekend. Receiver Daniel Smith (hamstring) is partly participating in practice and should be available after next week’s bye.