Commentary: 2010 Mid-Season Report Card: Special Teams
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern has had its share of issues in special teams this season, to say the least.  Three field goals missed, including a couple that could have tied the one game that NU lost during the first half.  Two FGs and an extra point try blocked.  Another extra point not even tried due to a bad hold.  Four muffed punt returns, including one lost against Purdue.  And return games that are nothing to write home about, including the nation's 103rd ranked punt return unit (averaging under 5 yards per punt return).

Despite all of those miscues, the 'Cats managed to win five games during the first half, including three wins by 7 points or fewer.  Despite his troubles, K Stefan Demos did hit the come-from-behind game-winner at Minnesota and has been relatively impressive on kickoffs, averaging 64.8 yards per kickoff with 4 touchbacks on the year.  And the punt game has been rather solid for NU, which has definitely helped in terms of field position.

But, in spite of those bright spots, the special teams have been an overall drag for the Wildcats, and is something that deserves more focus in order to prepare for the second half.  If NU wants to keep up its Cardiac 'Cats nickname, it will need to have an advantage in special teams, and continuing mistakes like the first half is not a way to do that.

Place Kicking: C+

Demos is not as bad as Northwestern fans like to make him seem.  Yes, he missed a potential game-winner in the Outback Bowl (a non-gimme 44 yard attempt) and also missed a potential game-tying FG against Purdue this year (another tough 40+ yard try).  But he has made some long FGs and hit the game-winning FG at Minnesota, and if he would have missed that one NU could have lost another heartbreaker.  Also, one cannot hold the blocks against him as those were breakdowns on the line.

Also, he has also been dealing with a new snapper/holder battery, with a new field goal long snapper during the first couple games of the year (redshirt freshman Pat Hickey), before the coaching staff wisely switched back to the senior John Henry Pace (who handled punt duties all along); redshirt freshman punter Brandon Williams has been holding for the first time this season, as well.  That battery has had its share of issues this year, including the aforementioned mis-hold against Vanderbilt that ended with a botched extra point try.  Do note that SB coach Bob Hefner and OL coach Adam Cushing coach up the placekicking team.

None of those are excuses for some flat-out misses from Demos, though, but the one thing he has proven is that he is resilient and can bounce back.  During the first half of the year he was 8-of-13 on FGs (2 of those misses were blocked), and was 15-of-18 on extra points (1 miss was blocked).  Hopefully Demos can put the issues behind him, recover from any first half dings, and hit some vital kicks during the second half of the year.

Returns: D

Yes, the return game has been and continues to be bad for Northwestern.  The 'Cats just haven't got anything going on punt returns, despite shuffling guys in and out as punt returner since Fitz took over.  S Hunter Bates has been the guy this year, and although he had a solid 33 yard return at Rice, he has had 3 muffs on the year, including one that was lost (against Purdue).  Fitz has stuck with him, though, so NU fans will have to continue to hold their breath and hope the gamble pays off at some point soon.  NU averages just 4.9 yards per punt return (including that aforementioned 33 yard return), good for 103rd nationally.

Kick returns fare a little bit better with Stephen Simmons handling those duties; Simmons has averaged 21.7 yards per kick return this year, including a 42 yard return.  The 'Cats rank a still-below-average 65th nationally 21.5 yards per kick return.  Although things have fared a bit better there, NU still hasn't benefited from a huge swing play on a return since their last return-for-TD in 2005 (although the 'Cats have scored on a blocked punt since then).

If one wants to heap blame, don't give it all to self-titled Special Teams coordinator Pat Fitzgerald, as RB coach Matt MacPherson handles kickoff returns and WR coach Kevin Johns handles punt returns.  Fitz has talked about how close NU has come to "breaking one" multiple times; hopefully Northwestern fans will get to cheer on NU actually breaking one in the second half of this year as such a play would be very beneficial for NU's upset hopes over some more formidable opponents.

Punts, Kicks, and Coverage: A-

Fortunately, Northwestern has actually improved significantly on coverage teams since Fitz took over as head coach.  NU fans no longer have to hold their collective breath when NU kicks off or punts; in 2010 the 'Cats rank in the top 20 nationally in fewest return yards allowed on both punts and kickoffs.  And with a solid punting game to go along with that coverage, NU has benefited itself by keeping opponents pinned relatively deep when getting the football.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Williams has done a really solid job punting this year, taking over for Demos who was essentially forced into that duty last season.  Williams has averaged 40.3 yards per punt with 11 of his 26 punts stopping inside the 20 to just 2 touchbacks.  And NU is allowing just 3.7 yards per punt return, good for 16th nationally.   That puts the 'Cats' net punting at 36th nationally, averaging a net 37.9 yards per punt, which has helped the D a good bit.  The punting game is coached by RB coach Matt MacPherson

Kickoffs have also been good for Northwestern, with Demos' kickoff numbers already mentioned.  The coverage unit ranks 20th nationally, giving up just 19.1 yards per return, which has again helped the 'Cats keep opponents deep in their own end when receiving the football.  Note that LB coach Randy Bates handles the kickoff team.

Finally, since it doesn't show up anywhere else, Northwestern has blocked 3 kick tries (1 FG and 2 XP), all against Central Michigan, which was a big reason that NU came away with a 5 point victory that day.  Also, opponents are 0-for-3 on 2 point conversion tries.  DC Mike Hankwitz handles the kick block unit.

Overall: C+

Despite some really solid play from the coverage teams, Northwestern has taken its lumps on special teams, and that has been a direct contributor to some close games as well as NU's only loss during the first half of the season.  There remains hope for the second half, though, as some of the individual breakdowns are indeed correctable, and if Demos can get back to his form, NU fans will quickly forget some of those misses.

As detailed above, all of the special teams issues do not fall upon one coach, but on the entire staff, who split up special teams coaching duties.  It's important to note this when fans come yelling about hiring a special teams coordinator to take over for Fitz (who has that title now).  Another important note is that this is a common setup in college football, who places tight restrictions on the number of coaches allowed in a program (a maximum of 9 full-time assistants is allowed).

Hopefully the bye week did come at an opportune time to shore up some of these issues, and they'll be put to the test right away against a tough Michigan State squad that is ranked 7th in the initial BCS rankings of 2010, the highest in its program's history.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.