Syracuse freshman Wayne Morgan caught the opening kickoff Saturday night just beyond the goal line, took one step forward, and thought better of it. (Just in time, too; had the ball moved forward another six inches and crossed the plane of the goal, his knee in the end zone would have been a safety.)
Smart move on Morgan's part -- because the Gophers are getting really good at covering kickoffs.
"We've been able to do that," coach Jerry Kill said. "There are some guys who take great pride in that."
They are some of the most hidden yards in football, but the Gophers emphasize not giving them up. Minnesota, now ranked third in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, kicked off three more times during Saturday's 17-10 victory over Syracuse, and Morgan (twice) and Ashton Broyld (once) chose to return them.
But the Gophers smothered all three returns. Syracuse's drives on those kickoffs began at the 17, 13 and 17 yard lines.
The coverage team is the big part of the reason, Kill said, and includes some of the fastest players on the team. Another reason? Jordan Wettstein's accurate kicks.
"The ball is being kicked in the right place," Kill said. Wettstein "kicked between the hash and numbers a lot. If you can cut down half the field or three-quarters of the field, you limit their ability to get to the (open) field."
If only the Gophers were as effective in returning kicks as they are in preventing returns, Kill said. Minnesota, seventh in the Big Ten, has yet to return a kickoff farther than the 23 yards Devon Wright gained at UNLV in the season opener (though Troy Stoudermire had a 48-yard return of a free kick against New Hampshire).
"We're not going a great job. We're disappointed" in the kick returns, Kill said. "Most of it's the blocking part -- we just haven't executed real well."