Football: 14 punts, upright doinks and more: Saturday was for the special teamers in Northwestern’s loss to Miami (Ohio)


Joshua Sukoff/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern lines up against Miami (Ohio). NU fell 17-14 to the RedHawks at home under the bright lights of Ryan Field Saturday.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern’s clash with Miami (Ohio) saw punters featured more frequently than Ryan Field advertisements for out-of-town corporate sponsors. The low-scoring affair between NU and the RedHawks provided the ultimate stage to display the chaotic brilliance that only special teams can offer. 

What unfolded Saturday was a performance for the ages for the special teams units: 14 punts for 560 total yards, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a missed field goal. And, most fitting of all, the game ended with special teams front and center, with a game-winning field goal as the deciding score as Miami (2-2, 0-0 MAC) shocked Ryan Field in a 17-14 win over the Wildcats (1-3, 1-0 Big Ten).

Just three minutes into the contest, spectators eager for the action of a fall evening of football had their first sighting of Miami punter Dom Dzioban. The RedHawks’ opening drive fizzled out and the Illinois native was tasked with pinning the Cats deep in their own half. He did just that with a 36-yard boot. 

In what became a frequent occurrence, Akers trotted out onto the field soon after his counterpart did and responded with a 37-yard punt. Just as quickly as he had left the field, Dzioban was called back into action, one-upping his adversary courtesy of a 38-yard punt.

It would be nearly six minutes before a punter ran onto the field again, but Dzioban didn’t skip a beat, hitting his next attempt 48 yards downfield. The next drive for Miami, shockingly, did not result in a punt, but rather something that was sure to give Chicago Bears fans in attendance a scare. Graham Nicholson’s field goal attempt from 38 yards was fading right the whole way, and sure enough the ball doinked off the right upright.

On the following drive, staring a fourth-and-5 in the face inside RedHawks territory, NU opted to punt the ball instead of going for it. The resulting play? A 32-yard punt from Akers to pin Miami deep in their own territory. Seeing Akers’ solid outing through a quarter and a half, Dzioban decided to bring his best stuff, booting the ball 59 yards down the field to the Cats’ 20-yard line. 

With the half winding to a close, misfortune struck NU and Akers as a gaggle of white and red uniforms swarmed him in a hurry. The Nashville, Tennessee native, who was afforded ample time on most of his prior punts, faced all-out pressure and had his punt blocked and recovered inside the Cats’ 10-yard line. The RedHawks capitalized on the opportunity, scoring a touchdown to even up the score at 7-7 just before the intermission.

“The blocked punt’s completely unacceptable,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s something that we work our tails off on … so that really shouldn’t happen, by the way we do things.”

The Saturday night special team frights continued into the second half in the only way possible: four consecutive punts. The streak ended when NU’s third drive of the half culminated in a turnover on downs and gave the visitors the ball back. Quarterback Aveon Smith led the RedHawks into field goal territory for the go ahead score, but Nicholson’s 43-yard attempt was blocked by the Cats’ junior defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin.

“We’ve just got to keep those guys coming because we’re doing some good things,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s back-to-back weeks now we’ve had a blocked field goal.”

After a scoreless third quarter, both NU and Miami put points on the board in the final 15 minutes of action. Dzioban and Akers each punted once in the fourth quarter, posting 49 and 48 yards punts, respectively. 

At the end of the day though, a matchup with such profound reverberations in the special teams community could only end one way: with the fate of the game resting in the hands, or rather the foot, of a specialist.

That specialist was Nicholson, the Miami kicker whose two early attempts had doinked off the upright and been blocked, respectively. Nicholson completed his redemption arc as he nailed the game-winning field goal with 21 seconds left, sending the RedHawks home with an upset victory.

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex