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International Bowl Preview: Special Teams

Yeah I know I may be doing things a little backwards focusing on special teams, but I'm really not.  You ask a Huskie fan what he's worried about and the first thing that may come to his head is what kind of a return game do they have.

Whether it's Louisiana Tech's Phillip Livas returning a kickoff 97 yards in last year's Independence Bowl, or Ohio's LaVon Brazill returning a punt 92 yards just two games ago.  It's a problem that hasn't been fully corrected just yet in the Kill administration.

I'm no coach and I have no idea what goes into the gameplans, what is said in the huddle or the film room.  I'll defer to P.J. Fleck to explain a little bit to the media:

"We've got to play with great discipline, we've got to execute and we can't turn over the ball. We can't give them anything. If we can do that, you get a bounce or two, you never know what is going to happen in the game of football."

"I think that's what's great about college football because you have to play the game and the team that wants it more is going to win," Fleck said. "You can have all the speed in the world, but that's why you have game plans. That's why you try to use their speed against them. That's what teams like us try to do. That's what coaches are for.

It comes down to discipline.  Salerno's supposed to kick the ball a certain place and the coverage team is supposed to stop that returner from getting anywhere.  It's as simple as that.

Read on as we breakdown every aspect of special teams in the bowl game.

Kicking off to USF

USF's Kickoff Return unit ranks 99th in the nation only averaging 19.59 yds per return.  Their main return guy is Dontavia Bogan, a 6'1" 185 lb Junior.  Rest be assured, he has never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in his entire career.  Individually, he averages only 21.31 yds per return which is 109th in the country. On offense, Bogan is also the 3rd leading receiver catching 22 receptions for 305 yds and 4 TDs with his longest at 50.  2008 was a bit different for Bogan, as he averaged 26.6 yds per return, which was good for 2nd in the Big East and 17th nationally.  He also had 3 returns of 50 yds or more that year, including one for 71 yds.

Northern Illinois should be confident in kickoff coverage.  The difference between 2008 and this year is astronomical.  Last year the Huskies ranked 95th in the nation in kickoff return yardage defense, giving up 23.04 yds per return.  This year the Huskies rank 18th in the nation only giving up 19.57 yds per return.

Advantage: Huskies

Punting to USF

USF ranks 85th in the nation in Punt Returns averaging only 6.89 per return.  Faron Hornes, a 5'6" 170 lb Junior, is the punt return specialist on this team.  He's returned 15 kicks for an average of 5.53 yds per return.  Somehow this ranks him at 54th in the nation.  His two longest punt returns this year were for 21 yds apiece.  Nary a return for a touchdown.

NIU's net punting is a very scary 103rd in the nation, as our average yards per punt is only 33.04.  When a player returns it, NIU's Punt Return Yardage Defense ranks 87th in the nation giving up 11 yds per return.

Advantage: Push

Returning Kickoffs vs. USF

NIU ranks 64th in the nation in kick returns averaging 21.70 yds per return.  Both Tommy Davis (23.92) and Ricky Crider (21.93) are capable of breaking one at any moment.  Tommy Davis' opening kickoff return for a TD vs. Eastern Michigan was #1 on SportsCenter's top plays.

South Florida's kickoff return yardage defense is ranks 32nd in the nation, as they only give up 20.22 a return.

Advantage: Push

Returning Punts vs. USF

NIU ranks 51st in the nation in punt returns with an average of 9.74 per return.

USF's net punting is 78th in the nation, but when opponents get a chance to return the ball, USF ranks LAST in the nation giving up 21 yards per return.

Advantage: Huskies

The Kickers

Eric Schwartz

2009: Became primary kicker for the Bulls during the Cincinnati game ... 9-14 on field goal attempts including a personal best of 50 yards against Cincinnati ... 3-3 inside 30 yards, 3-5 from 30-39 yards, 2-4 from 40-49 yards and 1-2 from 50 yards and longer ... Connected on 25-26 extra point attempts ... Also averaged 59.6 yards on kickoffs ... Walk-on rejoined the team after Maikon Bonani was injured while working at a local amusement park.

Damn carnies.

Mike Salerno has hit 18 of 23 FGs for NIU.  Onsides kicking master.

Pretty much if the holder gets a good hold and nobody misses a block, then the ball is going through the goalposts.

Advantage: Huskies

Conclusion: I feel very confident that even though the Huskies haven't been able to practice in a suitable indoor facility all that much in preparation for the bowl game, they should be fine in the special teams department.  There is barely any evidence showing that USF will make that much of an impact on special teams returns.  Punting is always scary, especially when Salerno does that rugby punt.  On our side of things, look for Tommy Davis to break punt returns for some long gains.  Could he break one?  Only time will tell.