Commentary

Special teams ignite Wolverines

Michigan turns Josh Furman's third-quarter punt block into a 21-point cushion

Updated: November 19, 2011, 7:05 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- All season long, Josh Furman has been one of Michigan's best special teams players and its most reliable gunner.

Even as the Wolverines struggled in kick and punt coverage early in the season, he seemed to be around the ball making plays -- whether his name showed up with the tackle or not.

[+] EnlargeJosh Furman
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireJosh Furman, one of Michigan's best special teamers, came up big with a third-quarter punt block.
On Saturday, the reserve safety made the biggest play of his career. With 8:32 to go in the third quarter, Furman lined up on the left side of the line, sprinted in and blocked Nebraska punter Brett Maher's attempt. It helped that Maher had dropped a perfect snap, allowing Furman to smother him. It wasmone of three special teams turnovers the Wolverines caused Saturday in a 45-17 blowout of Nebraska.

This one, though, changed the game.

Furman's block led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Fitzgerald Toussaint and a 31-10 Michigan lead.

"It's a big part, it's always a big part of everything, but to be able to knock some balls loose and start with great field position is a good thing for us, obviously offensively having a short field," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I thought it was a big part of what our kids were doing.

"And what helped us today."

Overall, it was Michigan's best special teams performance of the season. It wasn't even close. Two forced and recovered fumbles, a punt block, a fake field goal converted, and a kickoff return that was a block or two away from being a touchdown.

Almost all of the special teams plays came from players who usually only see the field on special teams. Terrance Robinson forced a kickoff coverage fumble, as did Floyd Simmons. J.B. Fitzgerald, whose time at linebacker diminished throughout the season, recovered one of the fumbles.

Even the rotation players who made special teams plays -- Courtney Avery recovered a fumble and Drew Dileo converted a fake field goal as a holder -- aren't starters.

"All special teams guys take pride in that facet of the game because a lot of those guys don't play offense or defense," said safety Jordan Kovacs, who started his career as one of those walk-ons. "That's their contribution to the game. A handful of them are walk-ons, also. They played great today, made a huge impact in causing turnovers.

"I think they won us the game."

The most impressive of the special teams plays was the fake field goal, something derived from the last time Hoke was in Ann Arbor, as an assistant coach.

Hoke said they used the same fake field goal play that Penn State called against Michigan in 1995. That fake, ran in by holder Joe Nastasi, resulted in a touchdown that sealed a 27-17 win for the Nittany Lions.

Sixteen years and one day later, Michigan used it to help beat Nebraska.

"You got it," Hoke said. "So you might as well use it."

The play, though, was relatively simple and from a high vantage point could have been read, as Dileo kept looking up -- more than normal, it appeared -- to check on the snap and reads. Dileo took the snap, got up and ran toward the right side of the line, running for 4 yards and a first down. Toussaint capped the drive with a 1-yard run on the next play.

The play that set the whole drive up -- Furman's punt block.

"They were what they were supposed to be," Hoke said. "Special."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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ESPN Detroit Lions reporter