Not so special

Wisconsin and Illinois are looking for improvement on special teams when they face each other in a Big Ten opener Saturday

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Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez felt sick after watching his special teams allow 246 kick return yards and a game-opening touchdown against North Carolina.

 

Illinois coach Ron Turner was not quite as blunt in regards to his specialists, but he may have more to complain about. Special teams has had a significant hand in each of Illinois' three losses this season.

 

In the Illini's opener, Missouri's Michael Harden broke free and likely would have blocked an Illinois punt if Illini punter Steve Weatherford had not decided to run. Weatherford, though, only managed to bring the ball to Illinois' three-yard line before he was taken down. Four plays later, Missouri's Zach Abron recorded a one-yard touchdown run to give the Tigers a 7-3 lead. Missouri won 22-15.

 

In the team's 6-3 loss to UCLA, a fumbled punt at the Illini 33 led to what proved to be the decisive field goal. In addition, Illinois kicker John Gockman, who had made his first six attempts of the season, missed from 43 yards out with 27 seconds remaining.

 

Last week, California punt returner Vincent Strang went 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Golden Bears a 21-7 halftime lead. Cal would finish with 107 punt return yards on six attempts and 94 kick return yards on four attempts, including a long of 35 yards.

 

The Illini special teams took a step toward redemption late in the game when it recovered an onside kick, but Illinois ran out of time and the Golden Bears won 31-24.

 

"We have to play a lot better on our special teams," Turner said. "Personnel-wise we are looking at it, we are going to continue to look at it and try to make some (changes). We are limited at how many we can make because we feel that we have the best people in there but we will address it, we will make some."

 

The Badgers kick coverage problems came to a heed against North Carolina. For the most part solid, the unit struggled intermittently against West Virginia, Akron and UNLV. Against the Tar Heels everything fell apart. On the opening kickoff, Michael Waddell went 97 yards untouched. The damage would have been worse, also, if Mike Mason's fourth quarter kick return for touchdown had not been called back due to an illegal block.

 

"I'm just sick about how we covered kicks," Alvarez said following the North Carolina game. "That's beyond me; I've never seen anything like that before and we will address it, we'll get it corrected."

 

Alvarez was more reserved regarding the problem during his Monday press conference.

 

"The first thing you do is take a look and see where the breakdown was and if there was a misunderstanding or whether it was personnel and then make decisions accordingly," Alvarez said. "And in this case, we made some mistakes in decisions on what you're going to do on the run and I think there might have been a misunderstanding with one of the kids as far as what his responsibility was. So, it's a combination but after reviewing it, I don't think there is any question whether we can repair it."

 

The answer, then, may be to simplify things.

 

"We are just going to try to go back to old school kind of ways," Wisconsin's Chris Catalano said. "Just go out there and play the ball, cross face and just 100 percent to the ball instead of trying to read too many things."


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