Northwestern special teams watch: Week 1

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Wildcats kicker Jeff Budzien had another typically strong game, as did punter Brandon Williams, but for the other units, it was a not-so-great opener against Cal: no presence on PRs, getting punk'd on a fake FG and fumbling a KOR.

Let's start with the good: Budzien, obviously. The senior Groza Award candidate was automatic, as he has been, going three-for-three on FG attempts, from 35, 19 and 32 yards. None of the kicks was particularly challenging (though sometimes those close-in ones from an angle on the hashmark can be tricky), but Budzien's been so consistent that FG kicking is no longer an adventure for fans.

In addition to the three FGs, Budzien was perfect on five PATs, and the 14 total points brought his career total to 190, ranking him 7th on NU's all-time points list. He's now a perfect 111-for-111 on PATs.

Budzien also took over kickoff duties this year from now-graduated Steve Flaherty, and he did a credible job, with two touchbacks.

You can see the opening kickoff here, which Budzien boots about a yard deep into the endzone, and the coverage team does its job. (By the way, thanks to whoever was recording the game on his phone at the game and posted these videos to Youtube.)

Here was the only bad kickoff return that NU allowed against Cal, but it was aided by the fact that the Cal returner flubbed the ball, which sometimes causes the coverage to overchase and break down. I like the audible groans turning into cheers from the crowd.

Williams also had a solid day, as did the entire punt coverage unit. Williams, a senior, averaged 42.2 yards on five punts, pinning three of them within the 20, and the unit didn't allow a single return yard. This, IMO, is the one area that Fitz has really cleaned up most since taking over special teams. Wildcat gunners (Stephen Buckley was one on Saturday) have generally been very good at getting downfield and the coverage has been excellent.

Now for the not-so-good. Venric Mark has been a dangerous return man throughout his career, but apparently because he was dinged up, he was on the sideline for every punt and kickoff Saturday. In his place on kickoffs was Buckley, and on punts it was Tony Jones. Neither was particularly great.

I thought on punt returns, Jones looked a bit tentative and let several balls go, which ended up good for Cal, as the bounces and rolls went their way. One ended up being a 70-yarder downed at the NU 13. Still, better safe than sorry, I suppose, and if you aren't sure you can field the ball cleanly, you're better off getting out of the way. It could have also been a lights issue, I dunno.

On kickoff returns, Buckley made a critical fumble after running into a blocker. The fumble came in the 3rd quarter right after Cal had scored to close to 20-17, and the Golden Bears would get the go-ahead touchdown shortly after. Overall on the day, Buckley averaged 19.7 yards/return, which is so-so. Here's the fumble:

Hopefully Mark heals this week and is back returning kicks for NU, but if not, Jones and Buckley have room for improvement.

And then there was the fake FG that Cal executed to perfection. Can't necessarily blame the FG coverage unit on that, as the call was a huge surprise to just about everybody. It did, however, prompt Fitz to play it safer on other FGs, ordering just token pressure.

I'm sure when the 'Cats review that play on film, they'll notice that they had three defenders chasing the kicker and nobody thought to cover the holder, who slipped through. The safety was drawn away by another potential receiver, leaving the holder wide open. One of the chasers should have peeled off and stayed with the holder. Ah well, lesson learned, hopefully.

Here's the play, which to be honest, was pretty awesome.

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