Northwestern may not have left Ryan Field with a W Saturday if not for the success of special teams.
Chris Gradone and the punt coverage unit were spectacular from start to finish. The team blocked both a punt and a field goal attempt. Field position, not the defense, held Western Illinois to just seven points.
Just three weeks ago, Chris Gradone averaged 30.6 yards on five punts, only one of which was downed inside the 20. The punt team was hurting NU rather than keeping them in the game. Since then, Gradone has only gotten better.
In his last two games, Gradone has punted 15 times with an average of 43 yards. He consistently pinned Western Illinois deep, downing punts at the WIU 1, 5, 9, 11, 13 and 17. Gradone's only other punt would've been inside the 20, except WIU's return man Hi-C Scott shed a tackle and bounced forward for 13 yards.
Six of Chris Gradone’s seven punts were downed on these yard lines: 11, 5, 9, 13, 17, 1 Odenigbo MVP, Gradone 2nd #Northwestern— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) September 20, 2014
Now, consider that WIU had drives of 45, 72 and 49 yards that followed Gradone punts which were downed inside the 20. And the Leathernecks failed to put points on the board on all of those drives. If WIU had an extra 10-15 yards on those drives, they sneak into field goal position, if not the end zone, every time.
In the post-game press conference, Pat Fitzgerald said about Gradone, "I thought he did a nice job outside the one punt, the one got a little high on him, the one that was kinda end-over-end. It got a little high up on his foot, basically his shin. But I thought he responded really well."
Gradone's boot wasn't the only game-changing piece of special teams Saturday. Keith Watkins II blocked and scooped up a punt, setting up the 'Cats with 1st-and-goal at the WIU 4. Trevor Siemian was sacked and fumbled on third down however, and NU went without points.
On the final play of the first half, Max Chapman blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt. Chi Chi Ariguzo picked up the football and tried to pitch it back to a teammate. Fitzgerald said, "We talked about pitching the ball. We practiced that, and Chi Chi pitched it to their offensive lineman instead of Matthew Harris, that probably would've gone up the sideline."
Nonetheless, special teams again took potential points away from Western Illinois. Northwestern will need Gradone and the special teams to keep up their outstanding play in conference games, especially if the offense continues to straggle along. The 'Cats only put up 24 points against an FCS team, and 7 of those points came off an Ifeadi Odenigbo fumble recovery at the WIU 17.
Gradone punted for 309 yards. NU had 283 yards of offense. #gocats— InsideNU (@insidenu) September 20, 2014
Outside the return units, special teams has been fantastic in the last two games. If Chris Gradone's week one punting carried over to this week, Northwestern could be winless right now. Getting the blocked punt and blocked kick were game-changers as well.
One of the biggest questions heading into the season was special teams. They've changed from a liability into one of Northwestern's greatest strengths, and this week, Chris Gradone was the team's MVP.