The importance of special teams has come a long way since Garo Yepremian declared, "I kick a touchdown" to Detroit teammate Alex Karras after the Lions kicker hit an extra point. Florida and Florida State have both proven that they can snatch momentum with stellar special teams play.
Florida State has only had one punt blocked this season. Joe Agnew of Rice blocked reserve punter John McKnight's kick when the Seminoles were comfortably ahead 40-7. They have blocked superbly throughout the course of the season. Punter Graham Gano is averaging 40.8 yards per punt. He has hit 16 of his 56 kicks (28%) inside the twenty yard line. However, they have not done a very good job of securing against the return. Opponents are averaging 13.4 yards per punt return.
Punt return and punt block are the strength of the Gators.
"The punt block team is playing like a national champion," Urban Meyer said recently when talking about the Gators. "There's one phase that's playing the best and I'd have to put them against any team in the country that's our punt block and punt return."
Florida has blocked four punts this season and come awfully close to getting a couple of more. The gunners have corralled the opposing return men as well. The Gators rank sixth nationally allowing just 3.6 yards per return. Florida State's Chris Davis averages 8.8 yards per return.
The Gators have found a gem in return specialist Brandon James (5-7 180). The true freshman from St. Augustine High School burst onto the scene against arch-rival Tennessee with an electrifying 89 yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back for a bogus block in the back penalty. James was once again spectacular last weekend. He has three punt returns for 38 yards, including a 66 yard touchdown return that was called back for an illegal block on Nick Brooks.
He set the Florida single season record last weekend with 155 yards on six returns. He had a 77 yard return go for a score. James is 11th nationally in returns and figures to be named Freshman All-American. Florida State is at risk in this facet of the game, because they rank just 109th nationally in punt return yardage defense.
The Seminoles have demonstrated some lightning of their own when it comes to blocking kicks. Just ask Clemson senior kicker Jad Dean. Lawrence Timmons blocked his first PAT attempt and Tony Cater picked it up and took it for two Florida State points. He later scooped up a 32 yard Dean field goal that was blocked by Patrick Robinson 69 yards for a touchdown. On the season, the Seminoles have blocked five punts/kicks.
That doesn't seemingly bode well for a Florida team that has had difficulty kicking field goals and PAT's. The Gators haven't had a field goal blocked, but have had PAT's blocked. However, Hetland's well-documented struggles are a major concern. He will have to focus on keeping the ball up as well as true, in a hostile environment without wondering if the blocking will hold up.
The Gators have had two punts blocked, one that punter Eric Wilbur dropped. However, the blocking has been sound through the second half of the season. Wilbur has punted 35 times for a 43.2 yard average. He would rank 17th nationally, but he is five kicks shy of the 3.6 kicks per game minimum to enter the national rankings. Wilbur has hit 17 of his punts (48.5%) inside the opponents' 20 yard line
If there is an advantage for Florida it's that their special teams play is indeed peaking in most aspects during a critical time of the year.
"Kicking game won the game," Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. "I've been involved in kicking for a long time and that's probably the most dominant effort that I can remember". Meyer said this after the Gators victory over Vanderbilt- exactly one week before Jarvis Moss' saved the Gators from certain peril with three blocked kicks against South Carolina.
The Gators kick by design with field position being the ultimate goal. They expect to contain and cover well forcing the opponent to go the length of the field. They're also hopeful for a mistake by the opponent so they can get the ball back close to their own endzone. For most of the season, it has worked very well.
For instance, against Vanderbilt, the Commodores average field position in the first half was their own 17 yard line. In the LSU game, gunner Riley Cooper flew downfield and jarred the ball loose from Early Doucet at the goal line. The ball was recovered by Tre McCollum for a Florida safety.
One aspect of the Florida special teams play that has failed miserably is scoring. Florida kicker Chris Hetland has hit only three of his ten attempts of the season. His long is from just 29 yards. He did not get a field goal attempt until the Tennessee game where he missed 47 and 52 yard attempts respectively. His next attempt came two weeks later when he missed on a 36 yard attempt. A senior should be able to maintain his confidence despite not being called upon to kick until the third game of the season. However, I'd be willing to bet that the Florida coaching staff will get kickers into position to make an attempt in the first or second game from this point forward- just to make certain that they'll be prepared before a big game against an arch-rival.
Opposing kickers have nailed 10 of the last 11 field goals against Florida State.
Florida State placekicker Gary Cismesia is 11 of 16 on the year. He has missed his last three though. All of his misses have been beyond 41 yards. Gano also handles the kickoffs where 21 of his 58 kickoffs have been touchbacks.
Neither team has been a significant threat returning kickoffs. Florida ranks just 89th nationally at 18.53 yards per return. Brandon James figures to improve upon those numbers. Florida State ranks 113th nationally at 16.96 yards per return.
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