"Just for Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills: Post-Duke

Expectations are sky-high for the 2011 Stanford Cardinal. So much so that even a 44-14 rout of Duke on the road wasn't even enough to put smiles on some fans' faces. We agree that there is a lot of room for improvement if this team is to reach its full potential. Aaron Mills reviews the performance of Stanford's Special Teams this past Saturday and is looking for the units to hit their stride.

"Just for Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills: Blue Devil Digest

As expected, we're off to a solid start this year at 2-0 after dismantling our very intelligent, yet obviously overmatched opponent from Durham, North Carolina this past Saturday. However, despite having outscored our opponents 101-17 in the first two games, I'm sure many Stanford fans will agree with me when I submit that our beloved Cardinal did not play a solid "60 minutes of football" in either game. The special teams were no exception this past week as our unit clearly turned in an uneven performance. There were some positives in the game that we have become accustomed to seeing out of the Cardinal lately, but it was the big plays we allowed that have to be corrected if we are to continue our winning ways.

In my Q&A session with Coach Polian before the start of the season, one of the things he was looking for out of the special teams unit was making game-changing plays...plays that can change the tide of the game in an instant.  As memorable as the 2010 season was for Stanford football, one could argue that one critical special teams play in our opponent's favor cost us an undefeated season.  Down 21-10 to Stanford last year, Oregon special teams coach Tom Osborne called for a gutsy onside kick.  Oregon kicker Rob Beard dragged a kick in front of him and he followed the ball 10 yards and recovered his own kick.  If Stanford recovers that onside kick, it is a totally different game and the 2010 Cardinal may have run the table.  Instead, the Ducks seized the momentum from there and outscored the rule-respecters 42-10 the rest of the game en route to what for the Cardinal was a deeply dissatisfying 52-31 loss.

Duke managed to make not one, but two such potential "game-changing" plays on special teams last Saturday.  On Duke's first two punts of the afternoon, punter Alex King ran out to the right after receiving the snap and intentionally punted end-over-end line drives that rolled over 40 yards both times.  This technique negated any returns and also put the rest of the Cardinal blockers on alert to avoid being hit by the ball on its way down the field.  If the ball were to hit any Stanford player during the play it is considered a live ball,  free for Duke to recover.  Fortunately this did not happen either time, but it made for a perfect set-up when Duke later decided to call for a fake punt in the second quarter.

On the fake punt, King ran out to the right again in what seemingly appeared to be another end-over-end line-drive punt and the Stanford blockers were sure to be well clear of making incidental contact with the ball as it travelled down the field.  This deliberate attempt by Stanford to steer clear of the punting alleyway allowed Duke's Jay Hollingsworth to occupy the vacated area and King easily completed a pass on fourth down that went for 21 yards and moved the chains. Stanford's defense held up on the ensuing series and ultimately no damage was done. The Blue Devils' Will Snyderwine missed his second field goal of the game from 45 yards out, keeping the score 10-0 in favor of the Cardinal.

Duke's second big special teams play came after Lee Butler intercepted a tipped Andrew Luck pass and took it back 76 yards for an "adverse-change" touchdown.  On the kick-off that followed, Will Snyderwine lined up for a deep kick and executed a nicely disguised onside kick to the right and Duke recovered the ball at the Stanford 39 yard-line down 10-7. The Stanford defense came up big again, holding Duke to a three & out (with two sacks) with the ultimate reward being a compensatory 13-yard punt by Alex King, which shanked off the side of his foot, giving the Cardinal the ball near mid-field.  Andrew Luck proceeded to march the offense down the field with frightening, control-reasserting resolve, culminating the impressive drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Chris Owusu, giving Stanford a 17-7 lead.

On the last drive of the half, Duke marched 46 yards in 26 seconds to place themselves in field-goal range with eight seconds remaining.  Will Snyderwine was 0-2 in field goals the previous week against Richmond, missing a 28-yard attempt as time expired in a 23-21 loss.  Already 0-2 in this game, Duke decided to go with Jeffrey Ijjas for the 49-yard field goal attempt before halftime.  Stanford called a timeout just before the ball was snapped and Ijjas pushed the attempt wide to the right.  With the timeout giving Duke another chance at redemption, Ijjas subsequently pulled the next kick low and to the left, keeping the score 17-7 going into the locker room.  Stanford came away from the first-half drama virtually unscathed with the help of three missed field goals (in four attempts) and a 13-yard punt by Duke. The score at intermission easily could have been 17-16, with Duke set to receive the second-half kickoff.

It is perhaps stating the obvious, but even powerful Stanford can ill afford to allow big plays from their opponents on special teams as the 2011 season progresses into the more challenging Pac-12 schedule.  In addition to the above-mentioned special teams plays, Chris Owusu mishandled his only kick-off return of the game, resulting in an uncharacteristically short, average-killing 10-yard return and Jordan Williamson missed an extra point in the second half.  Mistakes made in the Duke game on the road at Arizona might not go unpunished by the Wildcats!

Wow!!! Now that I have got that load off my chest, let's take a closer look at Stanford's kicking and punting performances.


Stanford 7 Duke 0

Extra Point: Sophomore Jordan Williamson had great elevation and follow through on his kick.  Straight down the middle.

Kick-off: Williamson kicked a nice deep ball in the left corner 2 yards deep in the end zone, returned 23 yards to the 21.

Stanford 10 Duke 0

Field Goal: Williamson had excellent alignment and focus, staying down and square to the uprights, drilling a 40 yard field goal.

Kick-off: Feeling the adrenaline of making his first field goal of the game, Williamson's kickoff sailed 8 yards deep in the end zone for a touchback.

Stanford 17 Duke 7

Extra Point: Nice snap, hold and protection.  Williamson made the extra point with good elevation and right down the middle.

Kick-off: Williamson's kick-off had good height into the left corner to the 3 yard-line.  Good coverage resulting in a 20-yard return.

Second-Half Kick-off: Still using the left directional kick-off strategy, Williamson came up through the ball too quickly on his follow through resulting in his toe wrapping around the ball and "snap hooking" his kick out of bounds at the 12 yard-line, giving Duke good field position at their 40 yard-line to start the second half.  This can happen to any kicker at any time of the game, but often does happen during this juncture of the game.  After playing one half of football and sitting in the locker room for 20 minutes, it is important to stay loose during that downtime.

Stanford 24 Duke 7

Extra Point: Solid kick by Williamson.  Nice rebound from his previous kick-off miscue.

Kick-off: Deep kickoff in the left corner to the 2 yard-line by Williamson.  Shorter hang time coupled with Duke's ability to open a hole in Stanford's coverage resulted in a return to the 30 yard-line.

Stanford 30 Duke 7

Extra Point: Williamson pushed his extra point, missing the kick to the right. Perhaps a bit fatigued, Jordan left his hips open and did not "follow through" the kick.

Kick-off: Best team effort on kickoff coverage of the day.  Williamson kicked off high and deep to the 3 with the coverage unit limiting the return to only 13 yards!

Stanford 37 Duke 7

Extra Point: Williamson pushed his extra point to the right, but was still good.  Similar to his missed extra point earlier.  Again, fatigue may have been a factor in the slow follow-through.

Kick-off: Nice deep kick-off by Williamson to the 5 but with average hangtime (fatigue).  Duke returned the kick-off 33 yards to the 38-yard line.

Stanford 44 Duke 7

Extra Point: Williamson's extra point slipped inside the left upright.  It appeared as though Jordan was overcompensating for his two previously pushed (to the right) PATs.  I am now thinking that fatigue is a contributing factor.

Kick-off: 2010 walk-on and now sophomore Ben Rhyne sees his first action of the season, spelling for Jordan Williamson.  His kick-off was down the middle, two yards deep in the end zone and returned to the 24 yard-line.  Nice first kick-off of the season for Ben. His kick-off looked like it was intended to go down the middle. With the game easily in hand at this point, Coach Polian likely called off any sort of directional kicking here and simply allowed Ben to kick freely.

Passable Punting

Both of David Green's punts came in the second quarter.  I have always been a fan of David Green's punting technique.  He has such a smooth, clean follow-through, making it look almost effortless.

Punt #1: David drove his first punt 55 yards to the Duke 7, but with only average hang time.  This allowed the Duke returner enough room to navigate a 17-yard return.  It was still a respectable net punt (punt distance minus the return yardage) of 38 yards, but I can tell you that most special teams coaches (Brian Polian included) would rather have a net punt of 38 yards in the way of a 38-yard punt with a fair catch.  Granted there are some instances where the coverage unit can cover a 55-yard punt limiting the return to a few yards.  But if just one of those 55 yard punts results in a "game changing" touchdown return, it just isn't worth the risk.

Punt #2: David executed a nice 52-yard punt that landed inside the 10 yard-line.  The Duke returner signaled a decoy fair catch signal at the 10 yard-line, causing the coverage unit to pause near the returner just long enough for the ball to make its way into the end zone for a touchback.  Those are the bounces!  They happen.

All-in-all, I would give the kicking and punting facets of the game a "B" grade this week.  The remainder of the special teams play grades out as a "C" this week for allowing Duke to successfully execute a fake punt and onside kick.  Their grade could have easily fallen to a "D" were it not for Duke's inability to capitalize on those plays. This goes to show that being successful on 90% of your special teams plays can be all but wiped out by a couple of critical mistakes. Knowing Coach Polian's reputation for having a definite "attention to detail" mentality on special teams, you can bet that the Duke game film will be well-scrutinized and the appropriate corrections will be made.  They must be made.  It's time to start Pac-12 play down in the desert in the Tucson this Saturday. Here's to a swift turnaround in Stanford's special teams play, and let's beat those Wildcats!  GO CARDINAL!

About the Author:
Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He currently resides in Las Vegas with his wife and three dogs.

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