The Daily Northwestern

Football: Northwestern’s special teams find redemption in East Lansing

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Solomon Vault races toward the end zone. The junior's second half touchdown return highlighted a strong special teams performance from the Wildcats.

Solomon Vault races toward the end zone. The junior's second half touchdown return highlighted a strong special teams performance from the Wildcats.

Allie Goulding/The Daily Northwestern

Allie Goulding/The Daily Northwestern

Solomon Vault races toward the end zone. The junior's second half touchdown return highlighted a strong special teams performance from the Wildcats.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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Football


EAST LANSING, Michigan — A homecoming crowd of 75,625 felt a Michigan State comeback in the cards after two long touchdown passes cut Northwestern’s lead to 33-31 with 2:08 left in the third quarter.

Fifteen seconds later, Solomon Vault silenced them again.

The junior receiver fielded Kevin Cronin’s kickoff on the bounce along the sideline inside his own five, then raced through a maze of Wildcat blockers and Spartan tacklers for a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown. The score completely shifted the momentum of a wild game back in the visitors’ favor.

The explosive return highlighted a consistently strong day by the entire NU special teams unit — the only exception being a meaningless punt block in the final minutes — just two weeks after a disastrous outing against Iowa.

The 180-degree turn is thanks to what coach Pat Fitzgerald described as a massive overhaul of the coverage units, which conceded 254 return yards to the Hawkeyes.

“Some of our guys that are ‘2’s’ are what most coaches in the country call ‘comfortable 2’s’: you ride the bus, you eat the steak, you get to go enjoy everything but (you say), ‘Eh, maybe I’ll go out there, maybe I won’t, my mom gets to wear my button on the sidelines,’” Fitzgerald said. “Then you go out there and … you get embarrassed like we did in our coverage units against Iowa.”

“I just said, ‘You’re done, we’re going with these guys, and if they’ve got to play 300 kick reps and 300 defensive reps, then that’s what we’re going to do and you’ve got to earn your job back,’” he added.

The new personnel contained the Spartans’ special teams game throughout the afternoon.

Michigan State kickoff returner R.J. Shelton nearly broke a return for open grass early in the second quarter, but a crucial tackle brought him down inside his 30 before a penalty pushed the ball back to the 5-yard line. Outside of that, none of Shelton’s returns even made it to the 25 — the line where the ball is placed after a kickoff touchback.

The same held true in the punt coverage. Junior Hunter Niswander averaged a respectable 42.8 yards on his five punts and the Spartans managed only 18 total yards with their returns.

“The way that our coverage units were today was much better, obviously except for the end … giving up (a) blocked punt,” Fitzgerald said. “Outside of that, I thought our kicking game was pretty good, one of our better games of the year.”

Senior kicker Jack Mitchell, who faced a wave of criticism after his early-season struggles, was also flawless — if not heavily tested — for the second consecutive game. He nailed a 33-yard field goal and made all seven of his extra point attempts.

Vault’s big play, however, stole the show.

His touchdown restored NU’s two-score lead and seemed to inspire the Cats to snatch back control of the game: sophomore safety Jared McGee picked off quarterback Tyler O’Connor on the next possession, and then a grueling 91-yard touchdown drive essentially put the game out of reach.

Vault now has four kickoff return touchdowns in his career, the most in school history. Both of his two touchdowns last year proved critical — one gave NU the lead in the second half at Duke and the other eventually helped the Cats to a nail-biting victory over Penn State — but neither occurred so late in the game or in such a hostile environment as this one.

With the entire special teams unit in need of redemption on Saturday, Vault provided the clincher to its altogether impressive bounce-back performance.

Email: benjaminpope2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @BenPope111

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