P.J. Fleck has seen improvement from Gophers special teams after the unit struggled mightily last season, but the coach still described last week's performance in a victory against Nebraska as "just inconsistent."
Too many mistakes in any phase of the game can be difficult to overcome for a Minnesota team with a small margin for error, but special team plays can also be the difference in close games.
"It wasn't our best performance," Fleck said about special teams in the 30-23 win against the Cornhuskers. "We need to be better in that area, and I know we will be."
This Saturday's matchup vs. Maryland will remind Gophers fans of a missed extra-point attempt in overtime that cost the team a 45-44 road loss against the Terrapins.
After the Gophers watched special teams cost them games in 2020, there have been moments this season where the unit has been highlighted for its success.
Punter Mark Crawford was named Big Ten special teams player of the week after the 20-13 victory at Purdue on Oct. 2. A sophomore from Perth, Australia, Crawford averaged 51.3 yards on six punts, including four that pinned the Boilermakers inside their 15-yard line.
Crawford was the first Gophers special teams player to win the Big Ten's weekly honor since holder Casey O'Brien in 2019. Crawford has improved his punting average from 37.8 yards last year (second-to-last in the Big Ten) to 42.7, which still ranks 13th in the conference.
But Crawford has punted 27 times this season, and 12 have resulted in the opponent starting from inside its 20. His 46-yarder against Nebraska led to a safety after the Huskers took over at the 11-yard line late in the fourth quarter. And a shanked punt in the third quarter that went only 32 yards didn't end up hurting the Gophers.
Two weeks ago at Purdue, kicker Matthew Trickett scored a season-best eight points after making all four of his kicks — field goals of 42 and 38 yards and two extra points — but he missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt against Nebraska.
"We came off having one of the better performances that we had all year [at Purdue]," Fleck said. "Just inconsistent anytime you miss a field goal, and then we didn't punt the ball particularly well."
There was plenty of blame to spread around in the Gophers' disappointing 14-10 home loss against Bowling Green on Sept. 25. Not surprisingly, special teams issues occurred that day, but it was shocking to Fleck why a couple of them happened.
On one Bowling Green possession in the fourth quarter, the Gophers were called for a roughing the punter penalty and an illegal formation on a missed field-goal attempt that twice extended the drive.
Fleck said those mistakes "drive you crazy [because they] were uncharacteristic of our football team."
Special teams penalties have been rare. Kickoff and punt return numbers have also improved so far this season, ranked ninth and seventh in the Big Ten, respectively.
The Gophers expected Crawford to make gains after being forced into the role as a freshman last season, but Trickett had to beat out a few kickers for the starting job in fall camp.
A transfer from Kent State, Trickett kicked a career-best 50-yard field goal in the 31-26 victory against Miami (Ohio) in the team's second game, but he was 2-for-5 on field-goal attempts and missed an extra-point try in the next two games vs. Colorado and Bowling Green.
Trickett, who is 6-for-10 on field-goal attempts this season, wasn't with the Gophers when missed extra-point and field-goal kicks sealed overtime losses against Maryland and Wisconsin in 2020. Special team plays, though, could become a deciding factor in key games again moving forward in the Big Ten this year.
The Gophers already have played four one-possession games, going 3-1, with more nail-biters likely to come. Minnesota is listed as a five-point favorite against Maryland.
"We feed off each other in all areas of the game," Trickett said earlier this season. "The special teams connect with offense and defense. Whenever we're able to be on and create that bond, it just spreads throughout the team."