Special teams key Minnesota win

David La

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Collectively, they are the setup men.
Like middle-relievers in baseball, a football special teams unit is not expected to do anything flashy — provided it does nothing costly.
Saturday against Illinois (3-3 overall, 0-3 in the Big Ten), now 24th-ranked Minnesota (5-1, 2-1) not only turned up the special teams heat, but avoided getting its own fingers burned in the team’s 37-7 win.
The Illini got things going on the opening kickoff, when Brandon Lloyd returned Mike Albert’s boot 41 yards.
The ensuing Illini drive stalled out at the Minnesota 14-yard line, and Neil Rackers was brought on to kick a 31-yard field goal. The kick veered right of the goal posts.
“We didn’t get that three points,” Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner said later, “and that hurts the team going out.”
The Gophers’ first drive ceased when Illini linebacker Mon Long earholed quarterback Billy Cockerham, causing a fumble. The fumble — and the momentum — was recovered by Illinois.
The Illini offense was unable to get started on its second drive, and punter Steve Fitts was summoned to get the ball out of the Illinois side of the field.
Fitts started the play well, snaring an atrocious snap and getting off a respectable kick. But the Gophers’ Luke Leverson turned Fitts’ heads-up play into one that slapped the Illini upside the head.
Leverson took the kick at the Minnesota 26-yard line, and scurried past thickets of blockers all the way to the end zone.
Leverson, who said afterward that he “never saw a hole open up like that,” completed a 10-point swing that demoralized Illinois.
“I would hate to think that a missed field goal and a punt return are going to put guys in a situation where they just totally lose confidence and don’t play after that,” coach Ron Turner said.
“I would hope we have more confidence than that. But obviously we didn’t.”
Speaking of confidence, one benefactor was undoubtedly Gophers kicker Dan Nystrom.
After missing a critical field goal in the Wisconsin loss last week, Nystrom disregarded the rain at Memorial Stadium and converted three chip-shot attempts of 26, 24, and 20 yards.
“It was important for me to bounce back and make some field goals,” Nystrom said.
Another big factor for the special teams in Saturday’s game was field position.
“Field position is huge,” Turner said. “In our first three games we had the field position advantage.”
Saturday, Minnesota’s average starting field position was at its own 35-yard line — Illinois began from its 23.
Having to commence drive after drive from deep in its zone was detrimental to the Illini offense.
“When we’re going out with bad field position, Minnesota has the momentum and it’s hard to work through,” said Illini running back Rocky Harvey.
The Gophers special teams have shone brightly at times this season, scoring points late in games that help to finish off the opposition.
Saturday was no different.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]