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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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