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For Northwestern, special teams are becoming a strength

They may not have beaten the Badgers on Saturday, but NU’s kick coverage and return games kept them in it.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Wildcats (1-3, 0-2 B1G) were trailing by 21 and a victory over Wisconsin (4-0, 2-0 B1G) seemed way out of reach.

Hunter Johnson had gone down, the offense could not keep the ball in their possession, and the defense’s efforts were no longer enough to hold off Jonathan Taylor, who was finally starting to heat up.

With Northwestern coming off the field after yet another three-and-out, including a heart-wrenching moment watching Johnson leave the field, the Wildcats were in desperate need of something positive. As the special teams unit took the field, Kubiuk let his tenth punt of the day fly and watched it slip right through the hands of Wisconsin’s Jack Dunn. Ray Niro III was there to recover the fumble at the Wisconsin 32 yard-line, and the Wildcats had life with under 11 minutes to play.

While the defensive success on Saturday was undeniably Northwestern’s bright spot, the efforts by special teams were major momentum shifters and could have been the deciding plays had the offense fully capitalized on them. Down the stretch especially, the coverage and return units were an active force and took matters into their own hands while the rest of the team struggled.

Niro III’s recovered fumble set Northwestern up for its first touchdown of the game. Drake Anderson punched it in, but a failed two-point conversion attempt kept it a 15 point game. Potential frustrations around the decision to go for two intensified after the play that would follow on the kickoff.

Trey Finison’s onside kick was successfully recovered by Kyric McGowan, giving Northwestern the ball back with eight minutes to play but still down three possessions. Had the offense kicked the field goal, the lead would have been 14 with plenty of time remaining. The third phase of the game set up Northwestern’s offense for success.

Much of the success on special teams went unnoticed either because the offense failed to take advantage of their opportunities, or because one mistake wiped them away. Coming off of the onside kick, Aidan Smith fumbled and handed the ball back to the Badgers. In the first quarter, a huge penalty on a punt resulted in a first down for Northwestern, but the Wildcats settled for a Kuhbander field goal.

And, potentially most crucially, Riley Lees and his blockers set up a massive return to potentially turn the tide late in the third quarter, but a questionable block in the back call behind the play took all of the potentially gained field position out of Northwestern’s hands. Instances like these were frustrating, but they offered something of a sense of hope for the future.

The Wildcats seem to have two of its three phases down pat. The defense looked outstanding on Saturday, again, and clearly special teams has a lot going for them right now as well. Kubiuk has been one of Northwestern’s most consistent pieces. He averaged 40 yards per punt on 10 punts against Wisconsin, including a 50 harder, which isn’t perfect, but combined with the coverage team’s efforts, came out looking good enough.

Kuhbander, meanwhile, has already tied his made field goals number from last year, going 5-for-6 on the season (including some very tough kicks) and 5-for-5 on extra points. Riley Lees, JJ Jefferson and Kyric McGowan all had solid showings as returners on Saturday and are reliable weapons on that side of the ball.

Ultimately, some of the biggest plays of the season for the Wildcats have been and can continue to be made in that third phase. If a few things had gone differently on the offensive end, the momentum-shifting plays in the fourth quarter could have allowed the Wildcats to pull out its most shocking win of the season.

While the outcome may not have been what Northwestern wanted, Saturday’s performance was certainly promising in a lot of respects, especially for the potential that could come to fruition in the coming weeks once all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit together.