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Northwestern-Vanderbilt: Shoutout to NU's Special Teams

This was a "game-winner", I guess.
This was a "game-winner", I guess.

For years, NU fans have lamented the Wildcats' mediocre to terrible special teams. Our traditionally poor kickoff/punt coverage has meant giving opposing teams great field position, and our shaky kicking and punting has often left a lot to be desired. The fact that our special teams coach is none other than Pat Fitzgerald has prompted many NU fans to call on him to hire someone else for the position or at least relinquish those duties.

Well, maybe Fitz is growing into the job, because so far in the 2012 season, our special teams have been really good, minus a couple of mental miscues early against Syracuse that have since been corrected. Venric Mark has already proven how dangerous he is as a punt and kick returner, having taken several to the house. Kicker Jeff Budzien, whom I highlighted last week, has kept up his now-NU-record streak of 59 straight converted PATs to stay perfect in his career, and on Saturday, he was also perfect on field goals. He hit a 40-yarder for NU's first score of the game, then a 38-yarder, and then what proved to be the game-winning 19-yarder on a wet field late in the 4th quarter. All three of those attempts split the uprights, I might add.

Saturday's game against Vanderbilt was also a banner day for the less-heralded kickoff coverage and punt teams, as I'll show after the jump.

Junior Brandon Williams has quietly solidified the punter position, taking over in 2010 from Stefan Demos, who had been handling both the place kicking and punting, which probably caused both skills to suffer. While Williams, a former walk-on, hasn't necessarily been a Ray Guy Award contender, punting hasn't been a real concern ever since he became the full-time punter.

His game against Syracuse went modestly well-- five punts for an average of 36.2 yards, which sounds somewhat worse than it was, given that three of the punts were downed inside the 20. In Saturday's game, however, Williams and the rest of the punt team were excellent.

Williams punted six times for an average of 41.5 yards, and no return went for longer than 7 yards. Two of the punts were downed inside the 10. Here's the breakdown--

1st punt: 53 yards, downed at the Vanderbilt 5 yard line

2nd punt: 48 yards, downed at the Vanderbilt 9 yard line

3rd punt: 48 yards, fielded at the Vanderbilt 25, returned to the Vanderbilt 32

4th punt: 32 yards, fielded at the Vanderbilt 32, returned to the Vanderbilt 36

5th punt: 37 yards, out of bounds at the Vanderbilt 36

6th punt: 31 yards, fair caught at the Vanderbilt 40

Obviously the 31- and 32-yarders weren't so great, but if I recall correctly, Vanderbilt was going for the block on both kicks, which Williams had to slightly hurry. And at any rate, the coverage got downfield well enough to prevent any big returns.

In the last few seasons, Jeravin Matthews and Venric Mark were two of the best gunners in the Big Ten, and with Matthews graduating and Mark being taken off punt coverage, I thought we might see a bit of a decline in this phase of the game. But so far, so good.

On kickoffs, specialist Steve Flaherty doesn't necessary have a booming leg that boots the ball out of the endzone, but he seems to get a lot of good hangtime that allows the coverage to get in position. On Saturday, Vanderbilt's kickoff return game was pretty much shut down. Here's the breakdown--

1st kickoff: fielded at the goal line, returned to the Vanderbilt 23.

2nd kickoff: fielded at the 4 yard line, returned to the Vanderbilt 25.

3rd kickoff: fielded in the end zone, returned to the Vanderbilt 23

4th kickoff: fielded at the 4 yard line, returned to the Vanderbilt 31

5th kickoff: fielded in the end zone, returned to the Vanderbilt 28

6th kickoff: fielded in the end zone, returned to the Vanderbilt 19

No touchbacks among those six kickoffs, but no matter. Vanderbilt's average starting position from those kickoffs was at the 24.8 yard line. Solid kicks and great coverage.

Special teams has usually been one of Northwestern's weak spots, but so far this year, the Wildcats look pretty good. I don't know if it's Fitz working out the X's and O's, or the specialists taking big steps forward in the offseason, or the team's overall depth improving due to better recruiting. But it bodes well for the season. Mark has already shown that he can be a game-changer on special teams, Budzien looks real good on FGs, Williams is performing well, and our coverage units are preventing big returns.

Granted, not everything is perfect just yet. Against Syracuse, our kickoff return team had some trouble fielding those knuckling line drive kicks, and we had a pretty bad derp on our first punt, when the long snapper snapped the ball right into Bo Cisek's midsection, while he was still calling out the signals. Those mistakes were for the most part mental errors and bad decisions, which can be corrected, rather than the results of physical shortcomings and ineptitude.

Special teams are one of those things where when it's working well, it doesn't really get noticed that much, but when it breaks down, it's glaringly obvious. So, I thought I'd give a shoutout this week, after a really good game against Vanderbilt.