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Continued: Onside kick the result of tireless work for Gophers backup

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 2, 2011 - 11:10 PM

The extra possession it delivered, the momentum it provided, the victory over Iowa it ultimately helped earn -- that onside kick the Gophers pulled off on Saturday was an enormous jackpot for a football program that needed a boost.

But that crazy kick, the giant bounce into the air and the descent at the perfect spot for Kim Royston to fall on it, still is bringing benefits to the Gophers this week. They just don't get to see them.

"I guarantee you, Michigan State is working on [defending] that this week," using practice time to prepare for it just in case, Gophers special teams coach Jay Sawvel said. "Wisconsin will work on it. Everyone will have [a defense] for it."

Not that it necessarily matters. Coach Jerry Kill and his staff has used the same onside-kick strategy for 13 years, and though the head coach insists the play is "a 50-50 shot," Sawvel said their success rate is actually much higher. While at Northern Illinois, they even ran it twice in the same game, shocking Central Michigan with their audacity three years ago to rally from a 20-point deficit.

"It's always about the execution. I mean, say what you want about Iowa, but their [coverage defender] had no chance," because the Gophers blocked so well, Sawvel said. "The only time we have not gotten that kick [successfully] in the last six or seven years is when we kicked one that basically took an extra hop and went over us, out of bounds. If you get the kick right, you've got a great chance of making it work. But getting the kick just right is the difficult part."

Now let's add to the degree of difficulty. Let's say the responsibility for the most critical part of the play is handed to a walk-on novice, a former soccer player whose collegiate football experience amounts to ... well, nothing. Whose high school football experience amounts to ... nothing? Whose entire competitive career can be summed up ... how?

"I was in Punt, Pass and Kick when I was young," he said.

Ah. Perfect.

But Jordan Wettstein, a 22-year-old junior from De Pere, Wis., didn't feel inexperienced at all when he stepped onto the turf at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday with the game riding on his foot. The Gophers' backup kicker, thrust into the starting job when starter Chris Hawthorne's strained quad still felt tight before the game, had kicked hundreds of field goals back home, with his father holding. He had two seasons of working during Gophers practice, waiting for a chance he wasn't certain would ever come. And he rehearsed thousands more kicks, getting the footwork and timing just right -- in his head.

"Mental reps," Wettstein said. "Probably as good as doing the practice itself."

Wettstein came to Minnesota to attend the Carlson School of Business, and since the Gophers don't have a men's soccer program, he asked the football team if he could try out.

"Always wanted to try it," Wettstein said.

"I tried playing in high school, but the coach didn't want me just to kick and punt, so I played soccer." 

A few kicks convinced Tim Brewster and his staff to allow Wettstein to walk on, but he never set foot on the field during a game. In fact, not until the fourth game of this season, when Sawvel sent the backup kicker out in the second half against North Dakota State to see how well he could kick off, did Wettstein ever actually kick for real.

"When we got here to Minnesota, he was just a guy who was kicking every day, and he had a pretty good leg," Sawvel said. "After North Dakota State, someone said, 'Yeah, that's the first time he's kicked in a game. I didn't know. But he gets good hang time on his kicks."

Why did he stick it out, despite getting no work?

"My parents raised me to never give up," he said. "And it's always been a dream."

That's what Kill is looking for, too.

"We've tried, program-wise, to find fight-back. Guys who stick, guys who persevere, guys who are tough," Sawvel said. "You can say that about him. He could have quit, he could have pouted, he probably didn't like certain days when he was getting coached hard. But he continued to battle."

He can hit field goals, too, as he proved with a 28-yarder in the third quarter against Iowa. But his hidden, and very valuable, talent: Driving the ball into the turf on Kill's favorite onside kick. Wettstein is the best at it on the Gophers' roster, Sawvel said, hitting it correctly roughly three-quarters of the time.

That's not so easy. The kick must go at least 10 yards, or the Gophers can't touch it, but no more than 15, or they can't catch up to it. It must bounce high in the air to give his teammates time to knock the coverage team out of the way. And it must stay in bounds, or it's worthless.

"It's got to be just about perfect," Sawvel said. Wettstein "has really got a knack for it."

So much so that the Gophers considered using the play earlier this season, but decided against it because the situation wasn't right. The situation Saturday was perfect -- the Gophers needed to get the ball back midway through the fourth quarter, fearing that their defense was too tired to prevent Iowa from turning its 21-16 lead into a two-score margin. Kill had actually expected the play to be needed; he told his special teams unit in the locker room before the game that the play was a go.

When the time came, Wettstein said he wasn't nervous, despite his inexperience.

"I've played around with it the past couple of weeks, and I've kind of found a sweet spot between 11 and 12 yards," he said. "I felt it off my foot, I knew I hit it good enough. I wanted 10 yards, it went 11."

The stadium roared at the shocking play.

"It was crazy. I heard the fans and everything," said Wettstein, who on Monday was named the Big Ten's special-teams player of the week. "That was probably the neatest thing."

That, and having all that work pay off.

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