Notre Dame faces off against a weaker special teams opponent on Saturday. I do not normally speak in absolutes, but I feel comfortable saying that Northwestern may have one of the weakest special teams units that ND has, or will, face this season. Let's get to it.
Northwestern has had a good number of players attempt kick returns this season, and none of them have had much success. Solomon Vault and Miles Shuler have taken the bulks of the returns on the season--10 a piece. Vault has 199 yards on his returns, an average of 19.9 yards per return, with a long of 31. Shuler has 198 yards on his returns, an average of 19.8 per return, with a long of 26. Treyvon Green has actually been the most successful Northwestern return man on the season, with 7 returns for 144 yards, an average of 20.6 per return, and a long of 26. Tim Hanrahan has 3 returns for 57 yards, an average of 19, and a long of 21. Garrett Dickerson has 1 return for 8 yards. Based on these numbers, as a team, Northwestern is averaging 19.5 yards per return. This is very poor. As for the longest return, Solomon Vault's long return came against Penn State:
Northwestern benefitted on this play from the poor kickoff--a squib. They set up a decent lane for Vault but were unable to hold the blocks for long enough. Despite this decent return, the numbers across the board are quite clear: the Northwestern kick return unit, while having a lot of work, is rather mediocre. Notre Dame, if they continue their disciplined play from last weekend, should have absolutely no problem containing the Wildcats, and should be able to pull off some decent returns.
Northwestern's punt returners are arguably the bright spot of their special teams unit, however they have not had many opportunities. A number that I found absolutely astounding: Northwestern has only had 6 punt returns on the season. Miles Shuler has had the most success, having 3 returns for 42 yards, an average of 14 yards per return. While I would like to say that this is a major improvement over his kick returning duties, I should highlight that Shuler's longest return IS 42 yards, accounting for all of his return yardage, meaning he is averaging 0 on his other 2 returns. Still, a 42 yard return is nothing to laugh at, and it is far longer than ND's longest return on the season. Ibraheim Campbell has 2 returns for 10 yards, an average of 5 per return, and a long of 7. Officially on the stat sheet, Keith Watkins is credited for 1 punt return for 25 yards with a long of 7 against Western Illinois, however it does not show up anywhere in the play-by-play. Yes, it says 25 yards on the return and a long of 7. I think it might be a mistake but if there's someone who can clarify that, let me know, as I cannot find video of the game. I hereby send out the PUNTER SIGNAL to all of you who watched the Northwestern-Western Illinois game, start to finish, and remember the punt returns and can let me know what happened.
Across the board, Northwestern's punt return numbers are significantly higher than their kick return numbers in terms of total yardage gained. Here is Shuler's long return: a 42 yarder against Penn State:
This is a fantastic return. Shuler had two options because of the poor angles by Penn State's coverage team. After taking the right instead of the left, he made some great cuts and pulled off a fantastic return. While NW's opportunities have been few, they have made the most of them. ND needs to be smart and not let their guard down on the punt team.
ND Kick Return
Like the punt return team, Northwestern's kickoff coverage unit is a positive, however they have one gigantic hiccup on the season. Northwestern's kickoff man is kicker Jack Mitchell. Mitchell has 35 kicks on the year for 2,081 yards, an average of 59.5 yards per return. Only 11 of his 35 kicks have gone for touchbacks, meaning that ND will have its chances at returns on Saturday. So far, opponents have not been too successful at returns against the Wildcats, only managing 509 yards on 23 returns, an average of 22.1 per return. This number drops even further, considering the hiccup I spoke about above; Minnesota has the longest return against Northwestern all year, a 100 yard return for a touchdown on one of the worst kickoff coverages that I have ever seen.
This was unbelievably poor coverage. You can see at the outset that Northwestern had 8 players inside their lanes, multiple players grouped, and no lanes kept. Instead of keeping lanes and being disciplined, NW's coverage team vacated their lanes almost immediately, for no reason that I can figure out. This was probably the easiest kick return for a touchdown that I have ever seen and based on the numbers, it was uncharacteristic of the NW coverage team. Keep in mind that if you take away the 100 yard return, the average kick return for Northwestern opponents drops to 18.5, which is extremely good. Still, there are two things worth pointing out. First, the average kick for NW lands at the 5-6, meaning the 18 yard returns get near the 25. Second, the 100 yard return has shown that Northwestern is capable of giving up a long return. Smart blocking could lead to a windfall for ND on Saturday but it is going to take smart and disciplined play.
ND Punt Return
Northwestern has used two punters this season, and neither of them are very good. Their main guy is Chris Gradone, who has 55 punts on the season for 2,072 yards, an average of 37.7 yards per punt. His long is 55, he has 4 touchbacks, 9 fair catches, and 16 inside the 20. Only 3 of his 55 punts have gone for over 50 yards. He also has been the victim of one blocked punt, against Iowa, which was recovered for a touchdown. The other punter is Hunter Niswander, who has 5 punts for 180 yards, an average of 36 yards per punt. He has a long of 43, one touchback, two fair catches, and one punt inside the 20.
As you can see from the numbers, the punters are not that good. The coverage team is not that great either. Opponents are averaging 8.1 yards per punt return against the Wildcats, with the longest return being a 41 yarder by Penn State.
Apologies for the quality--had to lower it so the GIF would play. This return was very similar to NW's good return. Poor angles and over pursuit led to open field for Penn State. I think that this could have gone for a touchdown had PSU's return man kept to the sidelines instead of trying to run inside. And as for the block:
This was nothing more than terrible blocking by one of the personal protectors. Rare, but it is possible. ND, as of late, has been sitting in safe returns, which leads me to believe we may not see a block this weekend. I think a decent return would be more likely than a block but felt I should show it to give you a taste of the inconsistencies that have plagued NW's special teams all season.
Northwestern's main kickoff man is also their field goal kicker--Jack Mitchell. Mitchell is 8-10 on the year, which, on its face, looks good. However, his longest field goal on the year is only 29 yards. His misses are from 44 (vs. Penn State) and 36 (vs. Michigan last week). He also has 2 misses from extra points, making him 16-18 on the year.
Based on the numbers, I believe that this shows two things. First, Northwestern does not score many touchdowns, nor do they get into field goal range for Mitchell that often. To put this in perspective, Kyle Brindza has 17 attempts for field goals and 39 extra point attempts. Second, it makes me think that Mitchell is very similar to Nick Weiler, North Carolina's kicker. He just does not have enough attempts from long distance to make me conclude that he is not good from distance, but I can say that he is unproven from distance. He is very accurate from in close, so as long as ND keeps Northwestern out of the red zone, things should be good.
As always, feel free to leave me your comments and questions below.