, Newburyport, MA

January 5, 2013

Special teams: Notre Dame and Alabama

By Brian Hamilton
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

---- — A quick review of the rules of college football dictate that someone is going to have to score for a winner to be declared between Notre Dame and Alabama in the BCS championship game Monday night at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Touchdowns may come at a premium with teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 (in a tie, anyway) in red-zone defense. So that makes scoring quite a feat, and also very possibly quite a feet, with the kickers from each side assuming a central role — whether it’s good or it’s no good.

Opportunities for points cannot be squandered. Opportunities to pin the other offense deep, and force it to grind out a drive against an unforgiving defense, must be executed well.

And just as one explosive play in the return game could turn everything, one implosive play on a field goal or a punt — a miss, a block, you name it — could have either team kicking itself all offseason.

Irish principals: K Kyle Brindza, P Ben Turk.

Notre Dame cannot, for any fathomable reason, allow points to trickle off the scoreboard thanks to kicking-game mistakes. Its operation must be flawless, and Brindza has not necessarily been that in 2012.

Brindza has hit 23 field goals, which was a single-season record for the Irish, breaking John Carney’s mark of 21 that had stood since 1986. So he’s prolific. And he has been clutch, with a game-winner against Purdue and important late kicks against Michigan and Pittsburgh. But he has missed 8 of 31 tries, with seven of the eight coming from between 34 and 43 yards.

The five field goals, including a career-best 52-yarder, at USC? That has to be the norm and the expectation for the title game.

Turk, meanwhile, has had well-documented ups and downs as the Irish punter. He, too, must be more up than down for Notre Dame not to suffer in the field-position battle. He has averaged 40.6 yards per punt with 13 dropped inside the 20-yard line. It’s a good night for a career night from Turk.

Crimson Tide principals: K Jeremy Shelley, P Cody Mandell, K Cade Foster.

If the Alabama offense can get within sniffing distance of the end zone, points are almost a virtual lock. Shelley is a mistake-free force inside of 40 yards, and he’s actually a mistake-free force outside of 40 yards — if only because he hasn’t attempted a kick from beyond that distance.

Shelley is 11-for-11 on the season with a long of 38 yards. If the Crimson Tide can make it to the red zone, they’re likely to score. But the apparent “big leg” field goal kicker is Foster, who is 4-of-9 on the season and missed a 49-yarder against Georgia in the SEC title game. Foster is actually 3-of-5 from 50-plus yards, though, with a 52-yarder as his longest.

But in a game where field position may take on great significance, Alabama has a solid weapon in Mandell. His 43.8 yards per punt average should be a top 20 figure nationally — for some reason he’s not listed among the leaders, even with 46 punts to qualify — and he has dropped 17 punts inside the 20.

Put another way: All told, it doesn’t seem as if Alabama is primed for mistakes in this area.

Analysis: Alabama seems in better position to play it safe than does Notre Dame, if that’s the way the game unfolds. Its punter appears more consistent, and its kicker slightly more reliable if the offense sputters in the red zone. But the Irish do have Brindza, who has made kicks under considerable duress. Alabama didn’t attempt a field goal in its biggest victory over LSU, and has missed its last three from 40-plus yards. Consistency edge to Alabama. Pressure-kicking edge to the Irish.


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