What's wrong with Big Ten special teams?

September, 23, 2010
9/23/10
4:19
PM ET
The first two weeks brought a few flare-ups in places like Columbus.

But last Saturday, special-teams breakdowns became a full-blown epidemic around the Big Ten.

Recapping the lowlights:

    [+] EnlargeRobert Woods
    AP Photo/Andy KingRobert Woods ran a kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota.
  • Iowa had a punt blocked deep in its own territory, setting up an Arizona touchdown. The Hawkeyes later allowed a 100-yard kick return for another Wildcats touchdown.
  • Wisconsin surrendered a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown against Arizona State and nearly gave up another before Shelton Johnson tripped up return man Kyle Middlebrooks at the 1-yard line as the second quarter expired.
  • Minnesota claimed a 14-13 lead against USC midway through the third quarter, only to relinquish it 12 seconds later when USC's Robert Woods raced 97 yards to the end zone on the ensuing kickoff.
  • Michigan had a punt blocked and missed a field goal, making the Wolverines 1 for 5 on field goal attempts this season.
  • Ohio State crushed Ohio but still had a punt blocked. It was the latest special-teams error for the Buckeyes, who had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown in the opener against Marshall and surrendered both a kick return touchdown and a punt return touchdown against Miami in Week 2.

The scope of the problems is surprising, given the Big Ten's reputation as a league that drills home fundamentals. Big Ten teams rank near the bottom of the national rankings in both punt coverage (Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan) and kickoff coverage (Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota).

What gives?

"A lot of times it's your next-level players, your 1-B's, [special teams is] their role," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Early in the season, you're going to get some growing pains as they go through their first experiences. It's one-on-one battles where you have to do your job and 100 percent of what is asked of you."

Ohio State's woes have been the most surprising, given Jim Tressel's reputation as one of the nation's best coaches in stressing the kicking game. But Tressel entered the season concerned about the Buckeyes' inexperience at some spots in the special-teams units.

"If there's one error in a special team, all of a sudden it can look disastrous," Tressel said, "whether it's a guy not blocking someone and they come in and block your punt, or a guy getting knocked out of his lane on a kickoff and all of a sudden, they've got a fast guy running through a hole. So there's a learning curve."

"There's no way to rush it," Tressel continued. "You can practice things all you want, but you certainly don't spend all afternoon in practice running down full speed on kickoff and smashing into each other. I just think it takes a little bit of time and understanding for all parties involved."

Wisconsin squeaked out a win against Arizona State based on two great individual plays on special teams: Johnson's tackle on kickoff coverage and Jay Valai's blocked kick on a potential game-tying PAT attempt late in the fourth quarter. Michigan State made the play of the day in college football on special teams, as punter/holder Aaron Bates threw a touchdown pass in overtime on a fake field goal attempt to beat Notre Dame.

But all too often, the one-on-one matchups are being lost.

During Wisconsin's team meeting Sunday, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema pointed out the league-wide special teams issues in games like Iowa-Arizona and Ohio State-Miami.

"I wanted to make our guys understand it's not just a problem here, but it's something we need to remedy," Bielema said. "There's 85 scholarship players at every Big Ten school. Of those 85 guys, you've got five or six specialists -- punters, kickers and snappers -- who are recruited there and given scholarships just to do [special teams]. The other 80 guys, they're not recruited to be the right guard on punt team or the left tackle on kickoff return.

"They want to get on the field and play football. You have to change their thinking and make them understand ... this position also is very important."

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