Not-so-special teams raise issues despite wins

Brian Hall

M

innesota football coach Glen Mason met with the Twin Cities media Sunday morning and reflected on his team’s most recent victory, a 35-11 win at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Early in the meeting, Mason stated he wasn’t articulate enough to describe certain things.

But when it comes to discussing the Gophers dismal special team’s performance so far this season, the coach has found the right words.

Following Saturday’s game, the coach used the word atrocious. Sunday, while a bit more reserved, Mason once again got his point across.

“The break downs in the kicking game were near disastrous,” Mason said. “When you look at the game the thing you get disappointed in is offensive penalties and the kicking game.”

Minnesota gave up a punt return for a touchdown and had a punt blocked through the back of the end zone for a safety resulting in eight of the Cajuns 11 points as well as several near misses by Louisiana-Lafayette’s punt block team.

They represent mistakes Mason hopes to cure before his team faces off against Toledo, who crushed the Gophers by a 38-7 margin at home to open last season.

“First thing we will do is tend to the kicking game,” Mason said. “We are having breakdowns we shouldn’t be having. My initial reaction was that we weren’t playing hard in the kicking game, but that isn’t true. I see guys playing hard but it takes the whole team to do that. We’ll get it fixed.”

This season Minnesota has already surrendered a 44-yard kick return to Southwest Texas State, a 32-yard kick return by the Cajuns, and the punt return for touchdown.

Meanwhile, punter Preston Gruening, who as a sophomore was named a Football News All-American, is averaging 40.7 yards per punt this season, but against Louisiana-Lafayette the senior had one punt blocked and booted a total of six punts for a 37.3 yard average.

Mason surmised the problems do not lay within the coaching or the schemes yet the execution by his players.

“The miscues we had should not have taken place,” Mason said. “You go back and look at it and the individual breakdowns and you have to correct that. You can never let up in the kicking game.

“The punt we had returned for the touchdown we had people right there. They missed the tackle.”

Beginning with practice Sunday, Mason was hoping to rectify the problem and said he would not rule out anything in finding a solution, including personnel changes.

“I will look at anything,” Mason said. “I want to use my best players. I like to get as many guys to play as we possibly can. So, if I can get a guy to play and perform on special teams that isn’t a starter, then I am all for that. But if he is a starter I will still play him. The performance of the special teams is going to take the priority.”

While the punting and coverage teams have struggled, kicker Dan Nystrom is a perfect 11 for 11 in extra point attempts. He has not attempted a field goal this season.

But in the season’s opening contest, Nystrom and fellow kicker Roger Duffy each put one kickoff out of bounds giving the Bobcats extra yardage.

“We need to improve in a lot of areas,” Mason said. “The old saying is, ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it is broke, try and fix it.’ We are not broke, but we need a lot of fine tuning. It’s more about individual breakdowns than anything. We need to perform better period.”

Ward honored

minnesota safety Eli Ward was named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

Ward collected the first two interceptions of his career against the Cajuns to go with three tackles and four passes defensed.

This season Ward is second on the team with 10 total tackles.

Ward shared the honor with Ohio State safety Mike Doss.