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November 24, 2013

Punting woes continue for NU, Williams


EVANSTON-Northwestern's struggling offense, which is averaging six fewer points than it did a year ago and hasn't scored a touchdown in 10 quarters, is an easy-to-identify culprit in the Wildcats' seven-game losing streak.

But another hidden factor is a punting game that is ranked last in the Big Ten and 119th among FBS schools in 2013.

The Wildcats' woes were evident early in the Wildcats' 30-6 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

Brandon Williams' first punt of the day hit a wall of wind and traveled all of 21 yards, to the MSU 45-yard line. He was immediately replaced by backup Chris Gradone and his first effort, while almost double the yards of Williams' boot, still showed a lack of execution.

Punting from the MSU 40 in the second quarter, Gradone had an opportunity to pin the Spartans deep in their own territory and flip the field in the Wildcats' favor. Instead, he booted it into the end zone, giving MSU the ball at the 20 and netting just 20 yards -- one fewer than the kick that cost Williams his job.

Michigan State went 80 yards and scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown on that drive.

Gradone went on to a decent day of punting, coming up with a 61-yarder and dropping three inside the MSU 20 in the game. Still, Northwestern averaged 36.8 yards per punt, about 4.5 fewer than MSU's Mike Sadler, and netted just 32.8 yards per kick.

That average is slightly worse than the Wildcats' season mark of 33.2 net yards per punt, which is better than only four schools in the entire FBS.

Northwestern's punting cost them even more dearly the week before, when Williams' disastrous 7-yard shank from his own end zone gave Michigan the ball at the NU 10 in the fourth quarter. That punt gift-wrapped a precious field goal for the Wolverines in a game that ended 9-9 in regulation. Gradone came on in relief of Williams after that poor effort, too.

After the Michigan game, head coach Pat Fitzgerald addressed his team's punting and Williams specifically.

"Right now, statistically, we're not very good. I'm not a big believer in all those things, but we're not very good, so when we had something tough go like that I had a little concern about where Brandon might go mentally, so I decided to take something off his plate and give it to Chris.

"You know, obviously, Brandon did a great job with his holds down the stretch on the field goal opportunities and the PATs. So credit to him for sticking with it mentally and staying in it, but I felt like it was time to make a change there. I'll fully expect to kick Brandon next week to start the game."

That confidence in Williams lasted all of one punt on Saturday. His last two boots, then, have averaged a pitiful 14 yards.

Williams has clearly regressed in this, his fifth-year senior season in Evanston. Last year, he ranked seventh in the Big Ten with an average of 39.9 yards per punt. Not great, but acceptable. This year, that average is down almost four yards, to 36.1, on 57 punts.

While it was not his fault, Ohio State's block of a Williams punt on Oct. 5 changed the complexion of the game in a 40-30 loss that started the Wildcats' current slide into oblivion.

Gradone, a redshirt sophomore, has been better, albeit in limited duty, averaging 38.6 yards per punt. Even if he had enough attempts to qualify, however, Gradone's average still wouldn't put him among the Top 10 punters of the Big Ten. And there are only 12 teams in the conference.



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