'All hands on deck' for lagging Irish special teams

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'All hands on deck' for lagging Irish special teams

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's special teams have been iffy at best in 2012, and represent the only area in which Alabama has a clear, significant advantage over the Irish in next week's BCS Championship. But with nothing to lose, coach Brian Kelly isn't going to hold anything back Jan. 7 in an effort to improve his team's kick and punt returning success.

"We're going to put all guys on deck in terms of trying to get the best players on the field, since it's a one-shot deal," Kelly said. "I don't have to worry about the next week or the week after, or them getting too many reps, including S-T."

Freshman Davonte Neal has handled Notre Dame's punt returns, gaining 44 yards on 18 chances, averaging 3.7 yards per game (sixth-worst among FBS teams). Contrast that with Alabama's punt returners, who average 25.8 punt return yards per game (16th-best), and that's a decent advantage for the Tide.

Kickoff returns have been a little better for the Irish, but the team's average of 20.04 yards per kickoff return is good for 85th-best nationally. Alabama's 24.84 yards per return average is 13th nationally, despite a difference of about four yards from Notre Dame.

On punts and field goals, Alabama holds an advantage that's much slighter. The real issue here is Notre Dame's punt and kick returners have rarely been able to do much to improve the team's field position, while Alabama's players in those roles have been able to do just that.

This isn't to say Notre Dame's special teams have been abysmal, though -- there are plenty of teams worse than the Irish in these categories across college football. But Alabama has been better to the point where there's no argument about their advantage, unlike on offense and defense.

Kelly wouldn't reveal which players could see time on returns against Alabama, although Cierre Wood -- who worked with Notre Dame's punt returners during fall camp and averaged 9 carries over his last five games -- would be a likely option.

"We have not been spectacular, but we hadn't stunk the joint up either," Kelly said. "We just need to continue to hold serve in S-T and maybe we can catch lightning in a bottle on a return, or get a block, something to that effect. But our concern is making sure we just take great care of the football and flip the field when we need to flip the field."

Wednesday on CSN: Illinois State and Loyola host in Valley doubleheader

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Wednesday on CSN: Illinois State and Loyola host in Valley doubleheader

The Missouri Valley Conference returns to CSN with live college hoops action on Wednesday night.

Looking to make a push for the NCAA tournament, Illinois State hosts Southern Illinois at 6 p.m. live on CSN. Then at 7 p.m. on CSN+, Loyola will host Drake in another Valley contest.

The Redbirds (23-5, 15-1) have won four straight games as they are co-leaders of the conference with Wichita State. Senior Deontae Hawkins leads Illinois State in scoring at 14.6 points per game.

Southern Illinois (15-14, 8-8) won on the road at Indiana State to snap a three-game losing streak as they're hoping for a better result after losing to Illinois State at home by seven earlier this season. Senior point guard Mike Rodriguez leads the Salukis in points and assists at 13.0 points and 4.1 assists per game.

In the second game, Loyola is trying to make a move up the conference standings as they host Drake.

The Ramblers (17-12, 7-9) lost to the Bulldogs on the road earlier this season as they enter this one having lost five of six games. Loyola is led by senior Milton Doyle as he leads the Ramblers in points and assists at 15.6 points and 4.3 assists per contest. 

Drake (7-21, 5-11) has lost seven straight games but they did get the best of the Ramblers in that 102-98 thriller earlier this season. The Bulldogs do have a talented junior in Reed Timmer as he's putting up 15.6 points per game.

Both of these games are important for Missouri Valley Conference tournament seeding purposes as Arch Madness begins on Thursday, March 2.

You can catch Thursday and Friday's MVC Tournament action live on CSN on March 2 and March 3.

Tuesday on CSN+: UIC hosts Green Bay

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Tuesday on CSN+: UIC hosts Green Bay

College hoops returns to CSN on Tuesday with some local action as UIC hosts Green Bay. You can watch this Horizon League matchup live on CSN+ at 7 p.m.

The Flames (14-14, 7-8) are coming off of a loss to Oakland as they try to make one more push up the conference standings. Junior big man Tai Odiase leads UIC at 11.3 points per game as the former Homewood-Flossmoor product is also a solid rim protector.

Green Bay (16-11, 10-5) is still fighting for one of the conference's top spots as they're coming off of a win over Milwaukee. The Phoenix already own a four-point win over UIC this season at home in a close game.

Senior guard Charles Cooper is averaging 13.0 points per game as he's been one of the better guards in the conference this season.