Field Position Was Special

STORRS – Any time Nick Williams fields a kickoff or a punt, his goal is to reach the end zone. That's pretty obvious. He hasn't taken one to the house this season, but he did come close a couple of times last Saturday in Connecticut's 40-22 victory over Rutgers.

Williams has developed into one of the top threats in the Big East Conference. The reason for that was obvious against Rutgers, because Williams doesn't have to reach the end zone to change a game.

"Any time you can cut out the offense having to get first downs, you can always help them out," Williams said after returning three kicks for 128 yards and one punt for 30 yards. "If you can start at the 50, instead of the 20 – where we would get the ball on a touchback – that's three first downs. It helps out the offensive play calling. It's a field position game. You get three first downs and you are in field goal range."

Williams is dead on. That's the book on special teams play right there. And the Huskies are finally pulling together all the elements.

Williams ranks second in the Big East in kick returns, averaging 25.7 yards. He is third in punt return average (6.2 yards) behind Tavon Austin of West Virginia and Ronald Jones of Pitt. As a team, the Huskies lead the Big East in kickoff returns, averaging 24.8 yards, and are fifth in punt return average (6.4 yards).

"[Rutgers] had done a good job of covering kicks all year long," Williams said. "The guys up front just created the holes. I had some simple reads to make and just ran with the ball. Any time you see your returner go off, it's not the returner. It's like a running back, if you don't have the guys up front, you're not going anywhere. It's always the guys up front."

Saturday, the efforts of Williams, his blockers, the turnovers and sacks forced by the UConn defense, the kicking of Chad Christen, and the punting of Cole Wagner combined to give the Huskies their best field possession in any game this season.

UConn's average field position for the game was the Connecticut 44. During a first quarter that produced a 14-0 UConn lead, that average was the Rutgers 45.

The Scarlet Knights didn't fare as well. Their average field position for the game was the Rutgers 23. In the first half, it was even worse – the Rutgers 17.

That field position was instrumental in UConn improving its conversions – both third and fourth down – and scoring points. Those had been problems for the Huskies on offense all season. But against Rutgers, UConn was 5-for-13 on third down and 1-for-2 on fourth.

Wagner's punting was a huge factor in the victory. In the second quarter he punted 44 yards to force Rutgers to start at a drive on its own 1. That led to the 9-yard fumble recovery touchdown by Kendall Reyes and a 21-3 UConn lead. And the Scarlet Knights began the fourth quarter pinned back to their own 2 after a 50-yard punt by Wagner.

Wagner averaged 42.5 yards on four punts against Rutgers. He heads into the final regular season game averaging 41.3 yards, second in the Big East behind Cincinnati's Pat O'Donnell (45.3). With the Bearcats trying to wrap up a BCS bid and the Huskies trying to become bowl eligible, one mistake in the punting game by these leaders could make a big difference.

To take the opposite view, the consistency Wagner has shown in recent games could tilt the game in UConn's favor. On Tuesday, UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni compared Wagner to Dallas Cowboys punter Mat McBriar.

"What he is adding to his tool box and skill set is that pooch punt," Pasqualoni said. "He's getting that Matt McBriar rotation on the ball, so that when it comes down it's got an excellent chance of going [backward]. He's doing that and working on that.

"If you notice, it's a different drop on that punt. That's a skill, and a talent and a tool that you love for your punter to have in his toolbox. He's hit a few of those for us this year and they're big. You put that ball down inside the 5-yard line, that's huge."

And it would be huge if UConn could excel at all the special team aspects again this week against Cincinnati. Perhaps this is what the Huskies have been building up to all season long and another solid effort could punch UConn's ticket to a bowl game.

"Sometimes that's just the way it is with a transitional year," Williams said, referring to the coaching change from Randy Edsall to Pasqualoni. "We had new players at a lot of key positions. Not to make excuses or anything, but sometimes it just takes a little while for the ball to get rolling."

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