Among struggles, kicking and punting both make this list

by Josh Katzenstein

Anyone who has ever golfed understands the Minnesota football teamâÄôs struggles with kicking this season, interim head coach Jeff Horton said Tuesday.

In practice, punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad hit the ball straight and far and have both won open competitions against backup David Schwerman. But as soon as they step on to the field âÄî the proverbial first tee âÄî they shank it.

âÄúI try to say to those guys, âÄòTrust your swing. You can’t overanalyze it. Just go out there and try to make it as natural as possible, and hopefully good things happen,âÄô âÄú Horton said. âÄúBut we’ve been just inconsistent.âÄù

The inconsistency in punting gives opponents better field position and puts more pressure on the defense. With missed field goals, the Gophers offense sees no reward for well-constructed drives, much like SaturdayâÄôs opening drive against then-No. 16 Michigan State that ended when Ellestad pushed a 32-yard field goal to the right.

The combination of the two could result in Horton giving offensive coordinator Thomas Hammock the option to leave the offense on the field for more fourth downs in the final two games this season.

âÄúI might say, âÄòYou know what, Thomas, we got two downs here. Don’t feel like you got to get it all on the one down because I’ll probably give you another down,âÄôâÄù Horton said. OrseskeâÄôs 36.5 yards per punt average ranks 11th among Big Ten starting punters. The No. 10 punter, IndianaâÄôs Chris Hagerup, averages 39.2 yards.

Orseske has had two punts blocked, recovered a bad snap for a loss of 28 yards and kicked eight others 30 yards or fewer.

âÄúThe coaches are put in a bind when a team is starting [near] field goal range,âÄù linebacker Keanon Cooper said. âÄúSome situations you have to be more aggressive, some situations you have to be more conservative. ItâÄôs kind of a mouse-and-cat game where, in certain situations, you have to choose exactly which route you want to take.âÄù

Meanwhile, EllestadâÄôs 57.1 field goal percentage ranks ninth in the Big Ten. HeâÄôs just 8-of-14 on the season and has missed three from inside 40 yards.

âÄúThe kicking game has to be a threat for us and obviously weâÄôve struggled with that this year, but youâÄôre always hoping that this is the game where everything clicks,âÄù Weber said. âÄúAs a quarterback you have confidence that we can keep on driving down and pick up that fourth-and-short or fourth-and-medium.

âÄúBut thereâÄôs going to come a time where you get close enough and you just have to kick the ball.âÄù

Playing from behind in all 10 games may have skewed this stat, but the Gophers have gone for it on 25 fourth downs and converted 12 times. No other Big Ten team has more than 17 attempts.

âÄúAfter this many games, it is what it is,âÄù Horton said. âÄúWhether it can change, I don’t know.âÄù

<b>Gray to see more time at QB</b>

After a decent display in limited time against Michigan State on Saturday, sophomore MarQueis Gray will continue to play quarterback in the final two games, Horton said.

âÄúI think in the second week that he’s been the package that we’ll try to increase his time on the football field there and be able to do some different things with both of them,âÄù Horton said.

As WeberâÄôs backup, Gray completed only two of his six passes, but he ran five times for 31 yards. He also had a nine-yard touchdown catch, and heâÄôll surely keep seeing time as a receiver.

As for the player Gray replaces when he enters as quarterback, Weber said heâÄôs glad to see the younger players take some reps. HeâÄôs also excited about how Gray can open the playbook.

âÄúWe can definitely get more creative, and IâÄôm sure these last couple games weâÄôll find some really fun plays for us to try to score some points,âÄù Weber said.

Horton not worried about his record

Counting back to his days at UNLV, Horton has lost 19 consecutive games as a head coach, but at 53 years old, he joked that he canâÄôt remember back to 1998, his 0-11 season with the Rebels.

With 26 years of coaching experience, Horton knows that all coaches have ups and downs, so heâÄôs focused on winning for the players.

âÄúI could care less for myself,âÄù Horton said. âÄúBut for those kids, and with the negativity that’s on them, they need something good to happen to them.âÄù

Injury update

âÄîSenior Jon Hoese (hamstring) is listed as the starting fullback this week after playing sparingly against Michigan State.

âÄîSenior safety Ryan Collado (concussion) said he expects to play Saturday.

âÄîOffensive linemen Dominic Alford (knee) and Matt Carufel (knee) are both doubtful again this week.

âÄîAfter starting his first career game Saturday, sophomore defensive lineman Austin Hahn will miss the game with a torn meniscus.