Football: Missed kick, blocked punt turn the tide for Northwestern against No. 6 Michigan

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffe

Michigan punt returner AJ Henning runs past Northwestern graduate linebacker Chris Bergin. Northwestern struggled on special teams in Saturday’s contest, missing a field goal and having a punt blocked.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


Football


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Special teams weren’t Northwestern’s only problem against No. 6 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten), but they certainly were a major issue.

Two crucial plays early in the second half decided the Wildcats’ (3-4, 1-3) fate: a missed field goal and a blocked punt. Those two moments swung what could have been a 17-10 deficit to a 24-7 momentum-changer.

Graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed his fifth field goal of the season after Michigan had just scored a touchdown to go up 17-7.

He is now four-for-nine on the seasonand has made just one field goal longer than 26 yards. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame that he doesn’t have plans to move on from Kuhbander.

“I have great confidence in Charlie,” Fitzgerald said. “There was a swirling wind down there. It didn’t look like we struck the ball very well…it’s more to me on the snap, hold, kick, the total operation before making assessments, but Charlie’s been so consistent throughout his career.”

Michigan kicker Jake Moody sailed a kick of his own wide in the fourth quarter, but in the opposite end zone. However, Moody nailed both of his kicks on the side of the field Kuhbander missed, including a 44-yarder. Kuhbander’s attempt was from 39 yards out.

In 2020, Kuhbander was 9-for-12 on field goals, with his longest kick coming from 47 yards out. However, he has missed every field goal of over 30 yards besides that one.

With Michigan State transfer Jack Olson, the fourth-best kicker in the 2020 recruiting class, and backup junior kicker Trey Finison on the sideline, Fitzgerald has multiple alternatives to replace Kuhbander if necessary.

“At the end of the day, that didn’t have really any impact on the game,” Fitzgerald said of Kuhbander’s missed kick.

And maybe it didn’t have an impact on the final score, but NU was gaining momentum after sophomore running back Evan Hull’s 75-yard touchdown run and wanted to build on it on their first drive in the second half. Coming away with no points, especially after forcing a fumble near their own end zone, created a shift in the final 30 minutes.

“We didn’t want to be in any other position than we were going into the half,” graduate linebacker Chris Bergin said. “We have to come out of the half and play better. Credit to them. They came out guns blazing. We didn’t.”

On the Cats’ ensuing possession, a blocked punt gave Michigan possession just outside the red zone. And the Wolverines took advantage with running back Hassan Haskins scoring the touchdown a few plays later.

The blocked punt was NU’s first of the season, coming off a low snap to graduate punter Derek Adams. Michigan’s defenders broke through the Cats’ punt protection team and that low snap made the ball an easy target for Wolverines receiver Cornelius Johnson to block, who recovered it at NU’s 24-yard line.

Additionally, on three kickoffs, the Cats failed to reach the 25-yard line, where they would have received the ball had they signaled for a fair catch. These special teams mistakes led to lost yardage for a Cats offense that was struggling to move the ball and largely contributed to a 33-7 loss.

“We’ve had over 300 reps that we’ve been able to protect our field goals and our punts and then see what happened today,” Fitzgerald said. “It starts with us as coaches. We can’t allow that to happen and expect to win a lot of games.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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