Football: Despite miscues, Northwestern to stick with Demos, Bates

Colin Becht

Following Northwestern’s first defeat of the season, a 20-17 loss to Purdue riddled with mistakes, Wildcats fans looking for blood have focused their displeasure primarily on the special teams.

However, as coach Pat Fitzgerald has made clear, the fans will get none. He is sticking with senior kicker Stefan Demos and sophomore punt returner Hunter Bates.

Demos failed to convert two fourth-quarter field goals, including a 45-yarder with 58 seconds left that would have tied the game. Bates muffed two punt returns, one of which gave the ball to Purdue at the NU 24-yard line.

“We’ve got to be better than that,” Fitzgerald said.

Still, that doesn’t mean he’ll be switching up the depth chart anytime soon.

“Stef’s made so many of those kicks throughout his career,” Fitzgerald said. “I have all the confidence in the world in Stef.”

After being named to the All-Big Ten second team last year and to the Lou Groza Award Watch List before this season, Demos has made just eight field goals in 13 attempts.

“Early (in the season) we had some operational issues,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a new snapper out there. We went back to (senior long snapper) John Henry (Pace) from a standpoint of he had been out there and he’d done it.”

Demos’s troubles have continued, despite the switch in the long snapper. In addition to his two missed field goals against Purdue, he missed an extra point against Minnesota and another field goal against Central Michigan.

This is not the first time Fitzgerald has had to defend his kicker against harsh criticism. Demos was the source of much anger after the Cats’ 38-35 overtime loss to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl, in which he had an extra point blocked and missed three field goals, including a game-winner and a game-tier.

In his bio on NUsports.com, Demos said he was “maybe the most hated guy on campus” following his performance in the bowl game.

Still, Fitzgerald said any loss of confidence Demos may have suffered after the bowl game is not still affecting him. Instead, it’s been injuries that have plagued him.

“He has been a little dinged up throughout the course of the year, and he’s battled through it,” Fitzgerald said, declining to elaborate on the specifics of the injury. “I wish I could say he’s been 100 percent the whole year, but he hasn’t.”

However, Fitzgerald said Demos’s injury doesn’t give him a free pass, and while the kicking job is still his, Demos needs to return to form.

“We all have a job to do. It’s about consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “He knows that. He wants to do anything he can to help the team.”

Sharing the spotlight of special teams failures is Bates, whose two dropped punts cost NU three points – the margin of the Boilermakers’ victory.

On Bates’ first fumble, Fitzgerald said Bates had simply taken his eyes off the ball at the last moment to survey the field.

“He’s been really consistent seeing the ball into his tuck, and he just picked his eyes up,” Fitzgerald said.

That mistake gave Purdue great field position, which it used to kick a field goal.

Bates dropped another punt early in the fourth quarter but managed to fall on the fumble to prevent another turnover.

“It was as good of a curveball as I’ve ever seen,” Fitzgerald said. “As it came down, it really crossed his face.

“As soon as he got to the side, he said, ‘I should have hotted it up. I should have stayed away from it.’ Because it crossed from about two body lengths over to this side of his hands,” Fitzgerald said, motioning diagonally to his right side.

Though Bates’s costly mistakes against Purdue have engendered speculation that freshman wide receiver Venric Mark ought to be returning punts, Fitzgerald said he remains firmly committed to Bates.

“He’s been consistent for us,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a block away from popping one on Saturday.” Fitzgerald also mentioned Bates’ 33-yard return against Rice.

Regardless of breaking big returns, Fitzgerald said he cares more about feeling confident with who he’s got lined up to take the punt.

“As I look across the league and who’s back returning punts, it’s typically about trust,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s typically about guys that are going to be consistent and then make plays for you.”

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