'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."

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

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USA TODAY

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

Illinois State, Loyola and Northern Iowa will all be in action Saturday.

And you can catch all three games on CSN and CSN+.

Tennessee-Martin at Illinois State, 2 p.m., CSN+

The Redbirds (4-3) are coming off of a tough loss on the road at Tulsa, but they're off to a solid start early in the season. Senior point guard Paris Lee, a Proviso East product, is having a monster season for Illinois State so far, averaging 15 points, 6.4 assists and three rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from 3-point range.

Tennessee-Martin (8-2) is off to a great start with only a pair of road losses to SEC opponents Ole Miss and Kentucky.

Milwaukee at Loyola, 3 p.m., CSN

The Ramblers (8-2) have won three straight games and will try to carry that momentum into Missouri Valley play. Junior forward Aundre Jackson is off to a great start, averaging 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Loyola features a few former local high school stars. Senior Milton Doyle (Marshall) is playing well while junior Donte Ingram (Simeon) was off to a good start before a recent knee injury. 

Milwaukee (4-5) is off to a decent start in a rebuilding year under new head coach LaVall Jordan and is coming off a road win against Montana State.

Rockford Boylan product Brock Stull is the Panthers' leading scorer and rebounder. The sophomore guard is averaging 11.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

North Dakota at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m., CSN

Northern Iowa (4-4) is coming off of a blowout win over South Dakota State.

Senior Jeremy Morgan has been doing it all for the Panthers. He leads the team in points, rebounds and assists per game. Morgan is putting up 15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest this season.

North Dakota (5-2) has two straight wins, including a victory over in-state rival North Dakota State.

The Fighting Hawks are led by Quinton Hooker, who's averaging 16.7 points per game this season.

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

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USA TODAY

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

Northern Iowa tries to break its four-game losing streak as they hose South Dakota State on Wednesday night. This game will be carried live on CSN with a 7:00 p.m. tip.

The Panthers (3-4) started the season with wins over power-conference teams like Arizona State and Oklahoma before dropping the last few games.

Senior guard Jeremy Morgan is off to a strong start this season as he's putting up 15.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.9 assists per game. 

They'll get a solid test from South Dakota State as the Jackrabbits have one of the best mid-major players in the country in sophomore Mike Daum.

The 6-foot-9 Daum is averaging 20.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season as he's the frontrunner for Player of the Year in the Summit League this season.