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September 9, 2008

Early games turn on special teams plays

RELATED: What we learned in Week 2 | Dienhart's Week 2 Awards

Kickoff returns for touchdowns blocked punts botched extra points punts run back for scores oh, my!

Yes, it's that time of the year: early season football, which seemingly always is filled with myriad big plays on special teams. There is no hard data to prove absolutely, positively, that more special teams gaffes occur in the opening weeks of the season, but special teams coaches I regularly speak with say that's always the case.

"There is no doubt about it," Oregon special teams coach Tom Osborne said. "You just don't get the chance to practice special teams live very much during training camps. The risk of injury is too high because there are violent collisions."

"The greatest fear of most coaches in training camp is suffering injuries," South Carolina special teams coach Ray Rychleski said. "To protect players, coaches typically never go full-speed on special teams drills. The collisions on kickoffs and punts are as big as any during the course of a game."

The second week of the season provided more evidence that special teams across the nation remain a work-in-progress. In a random sample of games, we saw:

Ohio State's Ray Small return a punt 69 yards for a touchdown against Ohio.

Alabama's Javier Arenas go 87 yards with a punt for a score vs. Tulane. Alabama also blocked a punt for a score.

Florida's Jeffrey Demps block a Miami punt, resulting in a safety.

California's Zack Follett return a blocked Washington State field-goal attempt for a 65-yard TD.

BYU's Jan Jorgensen block a potential game-tying extra point in a win over Washington.

TOM'S TOP 13
1. USC
2. Georgia
3. Florida
7. Auburn
8. LSU
9. Texas
10. Oregon
11. BYU
12. Kansas
ONE MAN'S WORKING HEISMAN BALLOT
1. Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri
2. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
3. Mark Sanchez, QB, Southern California

Iowa State block a punt vs. Kent State.

Kansas State return two blocked punts for TDs vs. Montana State.

Nebraska's Niles Paul run back a kickoff for a score vs. San Jose State.

Texas Tech's Eric Morris race 86 yards with a punt return for a TD vs. Nevada.

Purdue's Frank Halliburton block two Northern Colorado punts, with the Boilers recovering one for a touchdown.

"In the first game," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said, "your special teams are more vulnerable than any other phase."

This onslaught of big special teams plays got started in the opening weekend. Among the highlights were back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns in the Colorado-Colorado State game; blocked punts by Virginia Tech and East Carolina, which returned its for the game-winning touchdown; UCLA blocking a Tennessee punt and returning it for the first TD in its victory over the Vols; and Missouri running back a kickoff for a TD in a victory over Illinois.

Again, it all gets back to lack of live practice reps in preseason practices. Osborne said he got to practice four live kickoffs, four live kickoff returns, four punt returns and 12 punts during camp.

"And that's pretty typical," he said. "That's why we see all of these big plays on special teams early. If an offensive lineman blows a block, it may result in a sack. But if a guy blows a block in punt protection, it could lead to a block and possible touchdown. The momentum change a team can get from a big special teams play is huge."

Expect the big plays in special teams to lessen as the season hums along. But then

"You also will see a lot of special-teams breakdowns in bowl games," Osborne said, "because teams are off for extended stretches and they don't have the chance to practice special teams live."

WHAT'S UP WITH NOTRE DAME?

I'll admit it: I thought Notre Dame would absolutely romp in its season opener against San Diego State, wanting to send a message that it was going to storm back with a vengeance from last season's 3-9 debacle.

Alas, the Irish prevailed by a modest 21-13 score against San Diego State a 21-point underdog which lost to I-AA Cal Poly in its opener at home.

This will make you swallow even harder, Notre Dame fans: Cal Poly lost Saturday to Montana.

This isn't good for the Domers. Yes, I know it was the first game, that kinks need to be worked out and all that jazz. But Notre Dame needed to send a major statement against what looked like a moribund San Diego State team.

But the Irish only made a whimper, rushing for 105 yards in a game San Diego State led 13-7 halfway through the third quarter. The Aztecs were threatening to take a 20-7 lead early in the fourth before fumbling near the goal line. The Irish couldn't run vs. a patchwork Aztecs defensive line, had four turnovers and were outgained 345-342.

Notre Dame may turn it around and enjoy the season of glory I believe lies ahead. But this upcoming run of games against Big Ten teams (Michigan, at Michigan State, Purdue) will tell the tale of whether the Irish have made strides. Go 3-0 or 2-1, and all will be well. Anything less than that, and it may be "Hello, Sun Bowl!"

It's enough to make you wonder: If and it's a big if Notre Dame jettisoned Charlie Weis, wouldn't East Carolina coach Skip Holtz look good on the Notre Dame sideline? I know Holtz recently agreed to an extension through 2013, but if Notre Dame wants something, well, it usually gets it.

THREE QUESTIONS WITH ....
USC COORDINATOR STEVE SARKISIAN
HOW GOOD CAN YOUR OFFENSE?
Really good. We are still young across the board at tight end, quarterback, receiver and running back. The future is bright. We have not come close to tapping our potential. And we only had one starter coming back on the line. They guy who caught my eye and impressed me was junior Charles Brown. He started at left tackle and did a great job protecting our quarterback's blindside.
WHO DOES MARK SANCHEZ REMIND YOU OF?
All of the quarterbacks we've had in recent years have been unique. From an arm-strength standpoint, he reminds me of Carson (Palmer). Mark can make all of the throws the deep ball, post corner. He'll get better as our ground game continues to mature. Guys like (Joe) McKnight and (Stafon) Johnson didn't have that many carries and still had good numbers. I wonder how many yards they would have gotten had they gotten 18 or 20 carries.
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT MIKE WILLIAMS OR DEWAYNE JARRETT?
I'm not sure if we have a guy like that, but I will say that I like the potential of Damian Williams. He made seven catches against Virginia. He had clutch catches down the sideline, on the seam route. He's savvy and tough.

ATTA BOYS

To Minnesota's Tim Brewster: We are two weeks into the season, and the Gophers already have doubled their win total from 2007.

To Pittsburgh's Dave Wannstedt: Way to rise from the canvas after an ugly season-opening loss at home to Bowling Green and beat a spunky Buffalo squad.

To Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson: Looks like his "Back to the Future" triple-option offense is going to do just fine after a strong effort in a win at Boston College.

To Oregon's Mike Bellotti: The Ducks racked up 688 yards in a 66-24 win over Utah State. Offensive coordinator Chip Kelly already has his attack in midseason form.

UH-OHS

To Washington State's Paul Wulff: The Cougars christened renovated Martin Stadium by enduring the worst home loss in school history, a 66-3 beatdown by Cal.

To Syracuse's Greg Robinson: A 42-28 home loss to Akron?! One really, really, really hot seat coming up for America's most flammable coach.

To Maryland's Ralph Friedgen: We should have seen this coming. First, there was a middling 14-7 home win over I-AA Delaware in the season opener. Then, there was a 24-14 loss at Middle Tennessee. This isn't good for a coach who had losing records in three of the previous four seasons and was 25-22 in his past four seasons.

To West Virginia's Bill Stewart: Guess that notion of emphasizing the pass may be out the window following a 24-3 loss at East Carolina. A massive punch in the nose reveals every man's character. What's it going to be, Coach Stewart?

FINAL THOUGHT

This notion that the officials cost Washington the game vs. BYU is poppycock. Was the excessive celebration call on Huskies quarterback Jake Locker dubious? Yes. Locker didn't disrespect or taunt the Cougars after plunging into the end zone in the waning seconds. He merely tossed the ball in the air and chest-bumped a player. The penalty moved the extra-point try back 15 yards. Washington still could have converted the makeable extra-point attempt and forced overtime. But it was BYU that manned up and made the play, blocking the attempt. Just remember this: Officials never decide the outcome of a game. It's players making plays.

RELATED: What we learned in Week 2 | Dienhart's Week 2 Awards

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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