Irish searching for special-teams answers

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The smile on Brian Kelly's face said it all.

Asked whether Notre Dame could take its special-teams play to a new level this week, the head coach replied with a question of his own.

"What level would you like me to take them to?" he said to a room full of laughs.

If there was one thing that kept Kelly from proclaiming Saturday's 38-10 win at Purdue his team's best performance of the season, special teams may be it.

John Goodman netted minus-3 yards on two punt returns and let another ball roll by him for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter. David Ruffer had one field goal blocked and missed another.

And Kyle Brindza, who saw more action than normal given the Fighting Irish's offensive outburst, averaged 64.3 yards on seven kickoffs, matching a season low from a week earlier at Pitt, where he kicked off just three times.

"Kyle took a step back last week in his performance against Purdue, so we gotta find out why," defensive line coach and special teams coordinator Mike Elston said, adding that Brindza has been punting in practice as well.

"Maybe we've overpunted him a little bit. He's been awesome up until last week, which he understands. And he'll do a better job this week."

Of bigger concern is the punt return game, which has netted 3 total yards for the season on 10 returns between Goodman and Theo Riddick, who have each turned it over once.

Goodman, who has returned eight punts, ranks last among all 76 qualifying FBS players in returns, averaging 0.63 yards per return.

"When you're going backwards, we gotta make better decisions catching the ball, first of all," Elston said. "We can't catch the ball with a guy in our face. And we gotta do a better job of holding up. We gotta get guys out there that can run a little better, that can hold up. And Purdue had good skill and we didn't really match up well and we'll match up better this week with guys that we can get out there. So we just gotta put better guys on their fast players and try to do a better job of holding up."

And then there is Ruffer, a fifth-year senior who converted 23 of 24 field goal attempts last season, when he was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Ruffer has made just 3 of 7 field goal attempts so far this year.

There have been some bright spots on special teams, specifically freshman George Atkinson III, whose 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown broke open the Irish's Week 3 win over Michigan State. Atkinson ranks fifth among 100 FBS-qualifying players in kickoff returns, averaging 30.56 yards per return.

And punter Ben Turk has averaged 40.9 yards per punt over his past three games after a rough first two weeks left him with an average of just 33.85.

Still, a lack of clarity at several key spots five weeks into the season has forced Notre Dame into some tough situations, such as the first possession of the third quarter of its Week 4 win at Pitt, after the defense forced a three-and-out.

"It's very frustrating," Elston said, "because now you feel compelled to make a play so you call a block against Pittsburgh. And you rough the punter. So it's like you're trying to make something happen, you're trying to get something positive going on that unit and you're too aggressive, so it's very frustrating."