Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

34° Evanston, IL
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Spartans win the field position battle

Stefan Demos’ facial expressions said it all.

The Northwestern punter and kickoff specialist put his hands on his head after a failed onside kick and ripped his helmet off in disgust after another kickoff was returned close to midfield. Demos’ angst epitomized a frustrating day for the Wildcats’ special teams unit, which made mistake after mistake in NU’s 37-20 loss to Michigan State.

Ineffective in almost every facet of the game, the Cats’ special teams frequently put the offense and defense in tough positions – a fact not lost on coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“Our kicking game came out and was not very good day, especially early,” he said. “It killed our field position battle.”

How bad were the special teams? The Spartans’ average starting field position was the NU 49-yard line, while the Cats’ was their own 18. The constant poor field position – on both sides of the ball – helped put NU in an early hole and crippled a comeback attempt early in the third quarter.

From the opening kickoff, special teams miscues gave Michigan State excellent field position and kept NU on its heels. The Spartans’ Glenn Winston returned the opening kickoff to the 50, giving the defense little margin for error in the game’s first minutes.

“We gave them a short field all day, ” Fitzgerald said. “It put our defense in a tough spot.”

The defense stepped up early, forcing a three-and-out. But after Demos’ first punt was returned for 20 yards, the Spartans’ started their second drive with even better field position on the NU 42. Six plays later, Michigan State, had a 7-0 lead.

Cornerback Sherrick McManis fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Michigan State took over at the Cats’ 25 – the Spartans’ third straight drive starting at midfield or better.

“It wasn’t his best day, ” Fitzgerald said of McManis, who was tackled at the 5 on his next kickoff return.

Michigan State kicker Brett Swenson – last week’s Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week – booted a 26-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead. Swenson was 3 for 3 on field goals, moving to 15-for-16 on kicks this season.

Just like that, the Cats were two scores down. They would get no closer the rest of the way.”We had three plays in the first 10 minutes of the first quarter,” senior tailback Tyrell Sutton said. “Nothing was clicking for us.”

The same mistakes that put NU in its early hole doomed its best shot at a comeback early in the second half. After a quick touchdown cut the deficit to 24-14, the Cats tried to keep the momentum going with an onside kick.

But Spartans safety Otis Wiley made the heads-up play of the game, signalling for a fair catch before NU could recover the ball.

The play typified NU’s day on special teams. When the Spartans needed a big play, they came up with one. The Cats didn’t.

Earlier in the week, Fitzgerald stressed the need to avoid mistakes on special teams coming off the bye week. After a game filled with kicking mistakes, he preached the same message.

“Last week, I continued to pound the drum that based on the research I’ve done after bye weeks it’s the kicking game … and being in the proper mentality to be intense early,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously you become like what you think about the most.”

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Spartans win the field position battle