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December 5, 2013

Season Rewind: Special Teams

Our Season Rewind series evaluates the performance Northwestern's entire team in 2013. The first two installments covered the offense and defense. This last feature focuses on the Wildcat special teams.

While this unit was arguably Northwestern's best, like the team as a whole, high preseason expectations still make it a bit of a disappointment.

Venric Mark was supposed to validate his 2012 All-American honors as a return man, but multiple injuries prevented it. Punter Brandon Williams could have made his year his best campaign, but instead he finished his career on the bench. Jeff Budzien was considered a major candidate for the Lou Groza Award, but even though he finished a remarkable 23-of-25 field goals wasn't enough to make him a finalist.

Still, special teams were far from the reason for the downfall of this team. Players stepped up to fill the multiple openings created by injuries, and when the offense was stopped time and time again in the red zone, the kicking team was there to salvage some points. Without this group, Northwestern's already disappointing record might have been even worse.

MVP: Budzien. The "Budzien4Groza" Twitter campaign fell short, but the Big Ten Kicker of the Year's performance was still the best in Wildcat history. His 23 field goals set the school mark for one season, and his only misses came from 42 and 49 yards. NU wouldn't have finished with the third-best red-zone scoring percentage in the nation if Budzien hadn't knocked down all 20 of his tries after the offense stalled.

Player who will be missed: Budzien again. The Hartland (Wis.) Arrowhead product became Northwestern's all-time leading scorer and cemented a perfect slate of extra points over 136 career tries. He was called upon more than expected this year, and he consistently came through. Freshman Hunter Niswander was a highly-touted prospect, but it'll be quite a challenge to replace someone of Budzien's caliber.

Pleasant surprise: Matthew Harris. In Mark's absence, Stephen Buckley, Tim Hanrahan and Andrew Scanlan were all given opportunities to return kicks, but none of them did nearly as well as Harris. He averaged 23 yards per runback, including a 47-yarder against Western Michigan. The best part? He was just a freshman.

Telling numbers:

  • 70, the number of punts on the season. It's the most the Wildcats have booted since the 2004 season. It didn't help to have a punting unit that averaged just 35.8 yards per punt, either.

  • 20, field goals, in 20 attempts, inside 40 yards. Budzien may have been a little shaky outside the 30-yard line, but when the offense got close enough, he was automatic, regardless of the weather conditions.

    High point: Mark's kick return against Ohio State. Mark's mysterious injury kept coach Pat Fitzgerald from using him throughout the game, but with his team down 34-30 late in the fourth quarter, the coach called on his All-American. Mark took the kick back 38 yards to the Northwestern 41-yard line to set up what could have been the game-winning touchdown. It wasn't to be, and that was the only kick Mark took back all year.

    Low point: There were two low points, and both happened to Williams. The first one was devastating: Ohio State blocked his punt from the end zone and scored a touchdown in what was a tight game to the finish. The Buckeyes had a jail break right up the middle and cornerback Bradley Roby blocked the kick and recovered it for a TD. The other one was almost comical: With a 9-3 lead against Michigan in the fourth quarter, Williams was again punting from the end zone. He got this boot off but shanked it miserably. It took a bounce around the 15-yard line and then bounced backwards and out-of-bounds at the 11, essentially handing the inept Wolverines an easy field goal. It was the start of a ridiculous finish in the triple overtime loss.

    Analysis: Some things were very good (the kicking game) and some were very bad (the punting game). All in all, considering that Mark, the star of Northwestern's special teams unit, was limited to one kick return, the Cats did a pretty solid job holding up in his absence. Grade: B-

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