Sidebar: Special teams weather conditions

Matt Forman

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When coach Pat Fitzgerald woke up Saturday, he was sure of one thing. The weather conditions would be terrible. After all, it had been that way every time he came to the Big House as a player or coach.

Treacherous might have been a better assessment. Temperatures fluctuated around 32 degrees, with rain turning to sleet and snow. Winds were gusting at up to 25 miles per hour.

Given the conditions, Fitzgerald said the team had to fight through it. Outside of a punt that Michigan blocked and returned for a touchdown, his special teams unit did.

“We went into the game thinking it would be a field position game, special teams game with the weather,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we executed the plan pretty well.”

The special teams unit forced one turnover and gave the offense a short field, contributing to Northwestern’s ability to score points.

On the first possession of the game, senior quarterback C.J. Bachér threw an interception that was returned to the NU 8-yard line by Stevie Brown. Michigan moved the ball just two yards and lined up for a 23-yard field goal.

Undaunted, the Wildcats rallied behind relentless defensive end Corey Wootton. The 6-foot-7 junior rose up and blocked K.C. Lopata’s field goal.

“I was talking to (defensive tackle John) Gill, and I was like: ‘Let’s block this, let’s block this,'” Wootton said. “I got a pretty good push, got my hand up, and blocked it.”

Senior linebacker Prince Kwateng recovered the blocked kick and returned it seven yards to the 20-yard line.On its ensuing drive, the offense went three-and-out for the second time. And for the second time, the special teams unit bailed out the offense.

Sophomore punter Stefan Demos, booted a 38-yard rugby-style kick that did not go higher than shoulder level. Michigan returner Martavious Odoms muffed the swiftly moving punt and could not recover the loose ball. Senior wide receiver Eric Peterman recovered the fumble at the Michigan 39-yard line, diving to save the loose ball before it squirmed out of bounds.

“Stefan did a great job and our guys on the perimeter did a great job getting down field,” Fitzgerald said.Five plays later, sophomore running back Stephen Simmons rushed 21 yards for a touchdown, but NU still trailed 14-7 going into halftime.

The Cats forced a three-and-out on the Wolverines’ first possession of the second half. On Zoltan Mesko’s punt attempt, senior defensive end Kevin Mims burst through the line and got his hand on the ball. Mesko’s punt was partially blocked and rolled seven yards.

With the ball at the Michigan 40-yard line, Bachér orchestrated a five-play, 40-yard scoring drive to seize the momentum and tie the game at 14.

The unsung hero for NU was long snapper Phil Brunner. In the inclement weather, Fitzgerald said Brunner was perfect on his snaps, a key piece to the Cats winning the field position battle.

Fitzgerald said he was not surprised by his special teams’ ability to play nearly flawless football in the unfavorable weather conditions.

“I knew that we’d be prepared for today, ” Fitzgerald said. “We go outside in spring ball to get prepared for days like today.”

When he woke up, Fitzgerald was excited by the conditions. When Fitzgerald left the field Saturday, he felt the same way.

“It was a beautiful Big Ten football weather day, ” Fitzgerald said.

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