I am back! And with special teams goodies! The Notre Dame Fighting Irish face off against arguably their toughest opponent of the year on New Year's Day, Ohio State. The Buckeyes are, for the most part, almost flawless all around the field, special teams included. Let's get to it.
I might as well start with the weakest link for Ohio State. Jack Willoughby, a 5th-year transfer from Duke University, has been Ohio State's primary kicker all season, but lost the job in the Illinois game to sophomore Sean Nuerenberger. Willoughby may be the smartest kicker the Irish have seen so far, but not particularly the most athletic. On the season, he is only 7 for 11 on field goals. He is a perfect 4-4 from 20-29, and 3-4 from 30-39. He is 0-3 on kicks over 39 yards. Nuerenberger is not that good, either. He missed his only attempt all season vs. Illinois from 24 yards out. He does have experience, though, having been Ohio State's primary kicker last season. Though, even last year, he only went 13-20 overall. Whether he remains Ohio State's kicker, who knows. I understand there may be depth charts and such but I think this is going to be a decision where we find out the answer on game day.
Where Willoughby fails on field goals, he more than makes up for it on kickoffs, along with the kickoff coverage team. On the season, he has 76 kicks for a 60.5 average and only 25 touchbacks, with 5 kicks out of bounds. Now, I know what you're thinking: "But Punter Bro, that's only about a 33.3% touchback percentage," and I would agree with you. However, of the 45 kicks that have been returned, opponents are only averaging 16.73 yards per return. This places Ohio State's kickoff defense at 5th in the country.
My thoughts on these stats? If Ohio State gets the ball inside the red zone, odds are that they will score a TD (0 FG attempts inside the 20 all season). If they have the ball in place for a 40+ yard attempt, it would not shock me if they went for it, given their kicking woes from distance thus far. On kickoffs, the Irish are going to have an extremely rough time getting good field position. The longest kick return against Ohio State all season came from Penn State, on a 30 yard return. This is going to be tough. The Irish have shown that they can take one to the house vs. Stanford, but they need to be smart and disciplined vs. the Buckeyes to repeat that performance.
Another ND opponent brings us another Australian punter. Ohio State's punter is junior Cameron Johnston. He has 55 punts on the season, good enough for a 44.1 average, a long of 67, only 6 touchbacks, 20 fair catches, 24 inside the 20, and 18 over 50. Johnston's total net average is 40.23, good enough to put Ohio State at 16th in the country in net punting.
It doesn't get any better for the Irish when it comes to possible returns. Ohio State has only allowed 12 returns from Johnston's 55 punts. Those 12 returns went for 43 yards, an average of 3.58 yards for return. That places Ohio State's punt return defense at 13th in the country. Yikes.
Ohio State is, for the most part, almost perfect when it comes to their punt game. This will arguably be the toughest punt team ND will face in their season. Notre Dame has shown that they can return punts. However, they have also shown how easy it is to ruin any chance of a return with poor blocking. Personally, I will be happy if ND can manage 5+ yards on a return, but it would not shock me if they got little to no movement here.
As for the formation? I give you the Buckeyes:
This is a somewhat-modified spread formation with gunners to the sides. The rear blockers are not shoulder-to-shoulder as in normal spreads. Of note in this game, you can see that the gunner down low is unblocked, and the one up top has a lot of cushion; Michigan State went heavy on punt block in this game, and they certainly came close on several punts. ND may want to think about sending the heat if they can't manage a return, because if Johnston has time, he can utterly crush the football.
Ohio State has utilized two kick returns on the season, both of whom have an even number of returns -- 7 a piece. The first, sophomore running back Curtis Samuel, has 7 returns for 155 yards, an average of 22.1 yards per return. His fellow return man, junior running back Dontre Wilson, has 7 returns for 167 yards, an average of 23.9 yards per return. Neither has been much of a threat, with their long returns being 27 and 25 yards respectively. That said, the return yardage average--23 even--has given Ohio State decent field position, and their return team ranks 33rd in the nation.
Both Samuel and Wilson have the ability to be home run threats on returns. Both are fast and athletic, and have the added benefit of being running backs. While neither has had the "home run" success thus far, both are consistently good. A 23 yard return may not sound fancy, but if it ranks your team in the top 25% of return teams in the country, then you must be doing something right. Personally, I will be happy if the strategy in this game is to just have Newsome kick it out of the back of the endzone, but that is just me.
I might as well close this out with some nightmares. Ohio State has returned 26 punts on the season for 319 yards, a 12.3 yard average. This is good enough for 25th in the nation. The primary threat is phenom wide receiver Jalin Marshall. He has 24 of the 26 returns, for 306 yards, an average of 12.8 yards per return. While he does not have any touchdowns, his longest return on the season went for 38 yards. His 12.8 yard average places him as the 12th best punt returner in the nation. Oof. Even if he went down with an injury or got tired, his replacement is none other than starting running back Ezekiel Elliot, who only has 2 returns, but has a 6.5 yard average on both (long of 10, 13 yard total). Can someone say "Punt it out of bounds, please?"
If there is a game that ND needs to not make mistakes in, it is this one. Special teams is an easy area of the game to make mistakes. ND needs to play smart, disciplined, and not do stupid things. One fumble, one poor kick, one bad snap can change a game. I have faith, Ohio State does have weaknesses, but given their strengths, ND needs to play their best special teams game of the season on Friday.