NIU’s special teams requires improvement

By Chris Dertz

Minneapolis | Jerry Kill always put a huge emphasis on the performance of his special teams unit.

The head coach hasn’t had a lot to be pleased with when it comes to special teams up to this point in the season, but he always made an effort to reiterate that the Huskies were improving in all phases of the game from week to week.

That improvement was increasingly evident in NIU’s win over Minnesota on Saturday.

No, the Huskies did not play perfectly on special teams: the kick coverage gave up a 57-yard return in the second quarter to the Golden Gophers’ Ryan Collado. Minnesota got the ball into the end zone, and NIU tailback Jasmin Hopkins compounded the problem by coughing up a fumble on the ensuing kick return.

That mistake cost the Huskies another three points, and Hopkins his spot returning kicks for the rest of the game.

Although those two mistakes cost NIU 10 points and an untold amount of momentum, it turned out to be special teams play that would catapult the Huskies into a position to take control of the game.

Surprisingly, NIU having its first game without a missed kick was not the biggest special teams factor.

Enter freshman Jimmie Ward.

“I’ve coached for about 28 years,” Kill said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever recruited one like this kid. He can make plays in special teams, and he’s going to be a great secondary player.”

When the Huskies seemed to have no momentum, it was the NIU defense’s first three-and-out of the game, and a Ward blocked punt on the Gophers’ 29-yard line that allowed the Huskies to score a touchdown with three seconds left in the half.

You want to talk about a momentum shift? Minnesota was ready to go into the half tied at 13, but Chandler Harnish and Martel Moore had other ideas.

More notably, Ward had other ideas.

Chad Spann had some big runs, but Ward’s punt block, the seventh punt block for NIU during the three years under Kill, may have been the biggest play of the game.

In games where a mid-major takes on a BCS school, it’s often two factors that make more of a difference.

Turnover margin and special teams play. Not to sound like a coach, but the truth is that if you don’t turn the ball over and you play well on special teams, you’re going to have a chance to win the game.

NIU lost the turnover battle, but Ward made the monstrous play at an opportune time, and it led to a touchdown that could easily be considered the difference in the game.