Special teams a priority for Cats

David Sterrett

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By David Sterrett

The Daily Northwestern

The Northwestern football team allowed only 298 yards on 78 plays to Navy in its 49-40 victory on Saturday. The problem: the Wildcats allowed 380 yards on 12 other plays.

The youthful Cats (2-2) were burned for eight plays of more than 20 yards against the Midshipmen, and they allowed more than 28 yards per kickoff return.

“I was disappointed in our special teams, and we didn’t have our best day, ” NU coach Randy Walker said Monday. “On defense we gave up too many explosive plays.”

Opponents have averaged 517.5 yards per game against the Cats in their first four contests, making NU 116th out of 117 Division I-A teams in total defense – and last in the Big Ten.

To contrast: Michigan State, NU’s opponent this weekend, has allowed just 297.5 yards per game.

“We have to correct some things and have missed a lot of assignments and made some mental errors,” Walker said. “Our defense is not missing anything. We just need more guys to start getting it.”

The Cats have had particular difficulty stopping the option. The two option teams NU has faced, Navy and Air Force, gained a combined 854 rushing yards.

The Cats, who start just one upperclassman in their front seven, junior linebacker Doug Szymul, have the worst run defense in Division I-A this season, allowing 317 yards per game.

“Most of the time our defense controlled the game, but let-down killed us,” left end David Thompson said. “We need to get rid of the excuses, and we need to concentrate more and more in practice on the little details and improving our techniques.”

Thompson is one of the young Cats who has shown great improvement this season, according to Walker. The redshirt freshman end has 31 tackles in four games. Walker said he likes the way Thompson is getting off his blocks, running down the football and using his speed to make plays.

On a defense where six of the seven best tacklers are underclassmen, Walker was also pleased with safety Dominique Price. The sophomore forced and recovered two of Navy’s four fumbles.

“I always play very aggressive, and on Saturday my reads were pretty good,” said Price, who hit teammate Jason Wright so hard in spring practice that Price suffered a concussion.

“Last year I did not know not to hit everyone as hard as I could in practice,” he said. “I’ve learned you need to go full speed at practice, but also need to play smart.”

Walker would have preferred his coverage teams to have played with more of the speed and intelligence Price mentioned. In its final non-conference game, NU played poorly on special teams, allowing the Midshipmen to start six drives past their own 35-yard line.

“We lost field position on special teams,” Walker said. “It was not just cover people or the kickers; it was the whole package.”

The Cats allowed a 55-yard return, as well as three returns for more than 20 yards, although they did force Navy into five touchbacks. On the positive side for the Cats, the Midshipmen gained only one yard on punt returns, despite NU punter Brian Huffman’s 35.3 yards-per-punt average.

Even with the poor performance against Navy, Walker is optimistic about his special teams, which have the eighth-best kickoff return unit in Division I-A.

“I think we have the chance to be the best special teams unit since I’ve been coaching here,” Walker said. “We have a great punter and kicker as well as some very fast guys.”

Still, Walker knows the Cats must play better on special teams and defense when they face Michigan State on Saturday.

“We need to get the blown assignments and mental mistakes out of our football,” Walker said. “Because when you pop in a tape of Michigan State, you see a team with a lot of big-play weapons.”