For the Gophers’ young special teams unit, playing is like riding a bike.
Not in that the players never forget how, though that’s probably also true, but in that Gophers coach P.J. Fleck is metaphorically running alongside them, holding them steady until they can balance all on their own.
“You don’t just push them and let them go,” Fleck said Monday. “You know they are going to go down the first few times until they get the hang of it, and the more they do it, the better they are going to be.”
While the Gophers offense and defense have both quickly rounded into form, special teams — the oft-overlooked side of the game — still struggle with the same inconsistencies and gaffes the main units seemed to have shaken after the nonconference season. And now with No. 5 Penn State looming Saturday, the No. 13 Gophers will hope their 8-0 record isn’t tarnished in a game that could come down to special teams play.
Back in 2016, the Gophers were 3-0 before traveling to Happy Valley. They lost in overtime in a game where the teams combined for seven field goals. This season, both squads are evenly matched, nearly identical with how many yards each accumulates and allows.
Offensively, the Gophers lagged at the start of the year specifically with the offensive line and run game. But now, after clicking with the outside zone blocking scheme, the Gophers are averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Defensively, the Gophers endured several close calls at the beginning, either needing comeback wins or letting opponents back in late. But in the past four games, the Gophers have conceded an average of only 10.3 points per game, with most of those coming late.
Special teams, though, still slogs. The Gophers rank middling to near the bottom of the Big Ten in all special teams statistics. Senior Jacob Herbers has been hit or miss, leaving the Gophers with the conference’s third-worst average of 38.7 yards per punt.
Muffed punts, blocked field goals, kickoffs out of bounds. It’s basically Murphy’s law with that unit. Penn State, for example, has yet to give up a kick return of 30-plus yards, while the Gophers have given up three, including two that went 40-plus yards.
To Fleck, it just means growing pains. He recognizes there are many young players on those special teams units, including true freshman kicker Michael Lantz and true freshman long snapper Brady Weeks. Those kinds of players just need experience, both on the field and in the weight room.
“That is very difficult to expect these high things from those people,” Fleck said. “… But for as being as young as they are, I’ve been very pleased with a lot of the results that we’ve gotten. Have there been a lot of areas that we have to get better at? Yes.”
Fleck knew that heading into this season, meaning he’s been able to deal with the good and bad on special teams and adjust, since he never expected perfection. While there have been misses or near-misses in both high-pressure situations and just seemingly out of nowhere, there have also been clutch moments. One was Lantz’s first collegiate field goal, a 37-yarder, to beat Fresno State in double overtime.
“There is a time and place really to be incredibly demanding and exactly what you need, and a time and a place to comfort them and let them know that, hey, these things happen,” Fleck said. “You go back to the Fresno State game. We are not where we are right now if we don’t make that kick. … You take these little wins and make them really big right now.”