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Published: Wednesday, 10/24/2012

UT knows how special units can be

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Today’s subject is football special teams. Wait, wait! Don’t turn the page. Don’t slide us under the birdcage, at least yet. Give us a chance here.

Yes, coaches talk about three phases and, yeah, offense is exciting, defense is intriguing and special teams are, well, boring. But if you want to measure the improvement and success of a team, boring may be the very first place to look. University of Toledo fans know that when a kickoff or punt return is imminent, you do not leave your seat for a concessions run. Not when you’ve had a parade of aces like Donta Greene, Lance Moore, Eric Page, and, now, Bernard Reedy.

Reedy has returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in the last three games. To say he is blur-like fast and shifty and as exciting as they come is like saying the Brown-Mandel Senate race is a tad contentious.

And, on the kicking end, UT fans know Jeremiah Detmer is a field goal machine. He made five in the Rockets’ upset of top-25 Cincinnati last Saturday and has a streak of 11 straight. He’s 32 of 32 on extra points. He’s the nation’s top field goal kicker and No. 2 in the Mid-American Conference in scoring. Enough said.

When Toledo is kicking off or punting, well, that’s not the best time to run for a hot dog or popcorn either. The Rockets have gotten pretty good at that coverage stuff, too, and it’s probably the No. 1 reason they have won seven straight and are in the thick of the MAC title hunt entering Saturday’s game at Buffalo.

First, let’s talk defense. On purely a yardage basis, the Rockets are not great. They give up a lot of ’em. With a couple exceptions, though, they have not surrendered ridiculous numbers of points. Instead of yards, coach Matt Campbell prefers to talk about how UT’s defense handles critical situations, how it creates turnovers, how it stiffens on third-down plays and in the red zone, where it ranks as the 13th-best defense in the nation.

But if there has been one significant difference from the recent past to this season it is that opponents are being forced to work the long field. An 85-yard scoring drive is more of a challenge than a 55-yard drive. The more plays an offense is forced to snap, the more chances it has to make mistakes. UT’s national defensive rankings include interceptions (tie-No. 9) and turnovers forced (tie-24).

It is no small thing that Detmer averages 62.2 yards per kickoff, 41.7 yards net (with return and touchback yardage factored in), and has 18 touchbacks in eight games. Meanwhile, punter Vince Penza is averaging 42 yards per attempt, up five yards from a season ago. Here’s the kicker, pardon the pun — 13 of Penza’s 34 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line, and only 10 have been returned for a total of merely 61 yards.

Under former coach Tim Beckman, special teams were basically coached by committee. Under Campbell, there is a single voice, coordinator Stan Watson. His plan is pretty simple. If kick coverage is a matter of running, chasing, fighting off blocks, hitting, and tackling, then you might as well do it with your best defensive players, guys who run, chase, fight off blocks, hit, and tackle for a living, so to speak.

“Coach Watson has a great plan and part of it is putting some of our best people on the field in every key situation,” Campbell said. “And our guys have bought into playing special teams.”

That’s why you hear names of stars like Dan Molls, who happens to rank No. 1 in the nation in tackles, and Jermaine Robinson, who leads the MAC and is among the top 20 in the country in interceptions, announced as the tacklers on opponents’ kickoff and punt returns.

Molls said there were times last season when UT was “embarrassed” by special teams play, and certainly there was no lower point than when Northern Illinois scored touchdowns on consecutive kickoff returns of 100 and 95 yards to kick-start a 63-60 NIU win at the Glass Bowl. The Rockets also gave up a 69-yard punt return for a TD in a game it lost by five points at Ohio State. You can do the math.

“We know how huge it can be, so we’ve bought into the new schemes, and we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Molls said.

Robinson said playing on the kick coverage units “is an extension of playing defense. I’d rather be out there helping and having our veteran guys out there, guys who play with some discipline, and not put so much pressure on younger players.”

The bottom line, said Molls, is that a game can be won or lost on one play. And there is no guarantee that will be an offensive or defensive play. “You never know when,” he said. “It can be special teams. So why not put your best guys out there to be in a situation to win a game?”

Indeed. Plus, you never knew special teams could be so un-boring, eh?

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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