Special teams blunders cost U game

Todd Zolecki

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Gophers football team quietly showered, changed clothes and boarded the bus Saturday following its 30-27 loss to Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Steve Kemph wasn’t in a rush to do any of that. The Gophers punter sat on the floor in front of his locker while his teammates got ready to return home. He was one of the last players to leave the locker room.
The freshman was stunned.
Kemph had a day he’d like to forget. He kicked a 16-yard punt and had to field an errant snap over his head that resulted in a Boilermakers touchdown later in the second quarter.
As an All-America punter in high school, Kemph didn’t have too many days like this. But he wasn’t the only special teams player to struggle.
Besides the punting — five punts averaging 24.2 yards — the kicking game also got into trouble. Kicker Adam Bailey missed an extra-point and smacked a kick-off out of bounds.
The mistakes added up and helped ruin Minnesota’s chances of remaining undefeated through four games. And this was a contest the Gophers felt they should have won.
“The kicking game killed us,” Gophers coach Jim Wacker said. “We’re going with a couple of walk-ons and a couple of freshmen. I don’t think I’ve seen a high school team have two bad snaps two games in a row. I can’t understand that. That’s inexcusable.”
Two weeks ago against Syracuse a snap was tossed over Kemph’s head. Kemph knocked the ball out of the endzone for a safety. Saturday freshman Derek Rackley snapped the ball over Kemph.
“The bottom line is I followed through way too high in my snap,” Rackley said. “We work on this every day. You only get a couple shots of it during the game and you want to make it perfect.”
It wasn’t. Kemph chased the ball into the endzone. With Purdue tacklers closing in on him he made a split-second decision — he punted it.
The ball went out of bounds at the Gophers’ 19 yard line.
Should Kemph have fell on the ball for a safety?
“Maybe,” Wacker said. “That was a decision he had to make. He was hoping to get off a great punt. He’s under tremendous pressure. It’s easy to sit back and guess, but you’ve got a 100 different things going through your mind.”
Kemph found it difficult to describe the play.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We practiced it and worked on it a lot. This doesn’t happen during the week.”
Players said they didn’t feel a momentum shift toward Purdue after the play. Wacker disagreed.
“That comes down to mental toughness,” he said. “Talk about a big play. It turned around everything. Those kind of mistakes beat you.”
It took Boilermakers running back Kendall Matthews two attempts to get a touchdown following the punt. He did it on an eight-yard run up the middle, which put Purdue up 20-16. The Boilermakers didn’t relinquish that lead.
What makes it especially frustrating for Wacker is that it has been a focus of practice the past two weeks. But for whatever reason there wasn’t any improvement.
The Gophers will hope to correct their special teams play this week in time for the Northwestern game Saturday.
“You feel for (Rackley),” Wacker said. “Nobody feels worse than he does. I’ll promise you nobody wanted to snap it good more than he did.”
Kemph remains confident that the Gophers’ play will improve.
“We just have to learn from our mistakes,” he said. “We just didn’t play as good as we are, you know what I mean?”