Gophers special teams coach Jay Sawvel said Tuesday that the decision to use Ryan Santoso — instead of All-Big Ten punter Peter Mortell — for a key punt in last week’s Michigan loss was indeed injury related.
Interim coach Tracy Claeys had downplayed the injury when explaining the decision, but Sawvel revealed that Mortell had arthroscopic surgery on his left (non-punting) knee after getting injured two weeks earlier against Nebraska.
The Gophers had a bye the week after the Nebraska game, and Mortell wasn’t cleared to punt until the Tuesday before the Michigan game, Sawvel said. Mortell remained limited in practice, and it was a game-time decision whether he would be able to punt against Michigan.
The senior gave it a go, and his first punt, from near midfield, pinned the Wolverines at their 15-yard line. But his second one, from Minnesota’s 29-yard line, was a low line drive that Jabrill Peppers returned 41 yards.
Sawvel said the decision was made right then that if the Gophers needed to punt from deep in their own territory again, they would tab Santoso.
“The concern, from our standpoint, was if we got in that situation again, where we had to punt coming out, we couldn’t afford that type of punt with the returner they had,” Sawvel said. “It wasn’t from our standpoint not trusting a senior punter. It was rooted more in fact we didn’t feel like we had a healthy punter.”
Before the Gophers turned to Santoso, they had Mortell make two more punts. Sawvel said that’s because both came from near midfield again, where they were looking for a pooch punt. Mortell hit a 33-yarder that pinned Michigan at its 8, and then hit a 53-yarder than went for a touchback.
But with the Gophers leading 26-21 with about nine minutes remaining, they needed to punt from their own 11-yard line. Santoso, who also serves as the team’s place-kicker, got the chance to make his first college punt.
The short punt took a bad bounce out of bounds and went only 29 yards. Michigan quickly drove 40 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“Ryan [Santoso] had a solid week of punting,” Sawvel said. “One thing we got all week out of Ryan was a consistent ball with some height. Had he hit a 45-yard ball, we would have felt good about our decision. He hit the ball that he hit, and now we and everybody second-guesses it.”
Mortell still ranks tied for third in the Big Ten with a 43.7-yard average, and he leads the conference with 20 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“The further you get removed [from surgery] the stronger you’re going to be,” Sawvel said. “We don’t anticipate any kind of substituting from this point forward because he came off of the game feeling pretty good.”