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Tuesday Morning Brews: Special teams squeeze

We’re talking special teams and more this morning

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Tuesday, folks. Welcome to Morning Brews. This morning we’re taking a look at special teams play. The unique thing about special teams is they’re a little-noticed part of a game, unless something goes wrong. This morning I break down some troubling things I’m seeing on special teams for Michigan, and I discuss how they may come back to bite the Wolverines against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Let’s get to it:

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams could haunt Wolverines in upcoming big games

Special teams are an aspect of football teams that are often overlooked, unless there are problems. The problems normally manifest as catastrophic plays: surrendering a return for a TD, missing a critical FG, a certain play that shall not be named from a rivalry game, another certain play that shall not be named against an inferior team. But before these plays happen, there are often warning signs; small problems that go unnoticed unless you’re looking for them.

Michigan is exhibiting a few of these problems. First, the kicking game. After a hot start to the year, Quinn Nordin has cooled considerably over the past few games. Since the Penn State game, he has missed two FG attempts and two PATs. Of the FGs, one was a 49-yard attempt and the other was a 37-yard attempt. The latter concerns me more than the former, and the PATs concern me more than the FG attempts.

There are rumors floating about that Nordin has an injury, which is contributing to his newly-found human-esque performance. I haven’t heard what the injury could be, but I did hear that it was significant enough that the coaches considered sitting him until he was able to recover. Are the rumors true? I don’t know. What I do know is that three of Nordin’s four misses have been to the right, suggesting that he is having trouble getting all the way through the ball. His one miss to the left, on the 37-yard FG attempt, looked to me like an overcorrection.

Against Minnesota, Rutgers, and (when you’re getting taken to the woodshed by) Penn State, a couple misses are no big deal. But if Michigan finds itself in a close game against Wisconsin or Ohio State, kicking could be the difference between a win and a loss. Since the team won’t confirm anything but season-ending and other significant injuries, we’ll just have to watch the Maryland game and hope Nordin gets some kicking opportunities to figure out whether he’s back to his early season form or not.

The second, and more significant, issue with Michigan’s special teams is punting. I was surprised to see Will Hart begin the season as Michigan’s starting punter. Not because Hart isn’t a good punter, but because I was under the impression that Brad Robbins—who was a member of the 2017 recruiting class—was quite good and would win the job. After a slow start to the season for Hart (12 punts averaging 37.92 yards), Robbins indeed did win the job.

The problem, though, is that Robbins has had struggles of his own. Over his 37 punts this year, Robbins is averaging only 40.84 yards. Where does that compare with other FBS punters? He’s in 90th. The only B1G teams with punters who average fewer yards per kick are Iowa (Colten Rastetter averages 40.3 yards) and Wisconsin (Anthony Lotti averages 39.9 yards). Michigan’s opponents this year have averaged 42.77 yards per punt.

It would be one thing if Robbins were consistently kicking into a short field and had a large number of touchbacks, but that isn’t the case. He has only one touchback this year. Robbins’ problem appears to be consistency, or really a lack of consistency. Against Minnesota, he had punts of 49 yards, 34 yards, 33 yards, 47 yards, and 41 yards. Two well above his season average, two well below his season average, and one just about his season average. Against Rutgers he had punts of 29 yards, 48 yards, and 48 yards.

Robbins is clearly a talented punter. He earned a scholarship offer during his recruitment, which is relatively rare these days for a specialist. He has shown the ability to drop big punts and switch the field (49 yards, 48 yards, 48 yards, and 47 yards are great, and he has a season long of 57 yards). But he’s prone to short kicks, as we’ve seen in these past two games.

Like Nordin’s recent troubles with kicking, punting struggles against Rutgers and Minnesota aren’t a big deal. They probably won’t be a big deal against Maryland. But against Ohio State and Wisconsin, being able to effectively play the field position game could be the difference between winning and losing. Against those teams, the defense will surrender yards - but they’ll need space to bend, not break. If OSU and Wisconsin are starting drives at the 50 yardline, it will be a long day for the defense and fans alike.

We’ve already brought you coverage of how phenomenal Karan Higdon and Chris Evans were last Saturday against Minnesota, but I wanted to highlight these stats as well. PFF calculated that Higdon and Evans had 199 yards after contact between the two of them. With a combined 29 carries, that means that they averaged 6.86 yards per carry AFTER contact. As in, after they were first touched by a defender, they averages nearly seven additional yards. Perhaps even better than that though is they had 192 yards before contact, or an average of 6.62 yards per carry before they were even touched. That’s a great day both for Higdon and Evans, and the offensive line.

There’s good news for the Michigan defense: Josh Metellus will not face a suspension for his alleged involvement in the on-field altercation last Saturday night. During the game and in the immediate aftermath, it wasn’t clear whether Metellus had incurred a mandatory one half suspension (which coincides with penalties like targetting and fighting) after being ejected. It was also conceivable that he would be sanctioned by the conference (though given the fact that he did nothing to merit the ejection, a suspension from the conference would have been a travesty). Thankfully, it appears that neither will be the case and Metellus will suit up with the rest of the team against Maryland.

Michigan field hockey are B1G Tournament Champions after topping No. 9 Northwestern in the semifinals by the score of 2-0, and sneaking past No. 5 Penn State with a late goal 1-0 in the championship match. The two wins were the 15th and 16th consecutive victories for the team, and give the team nine wins over ranked teams during their streak and 12 wins over ranked teams this season. This is the sixth time that Michigan has won the B1G Tournament. The Wolverines are the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face Syracuse on Saturday.