The Badgers special teams have enjoyed a near-complete turnaround the past two weeks. They need to close the remaining gaps with Purdue on its way to Madison.
Just a few weeks ago the Badgers' kick coverage units were an albatross. The unit had suffered severe meltdowns, most apparent when North Carolina returned six kicks for 246 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown from Michael Waddell.
The kick coverage team also allowed 146 kick return yards on five attempts to West Virginia, including an 81-yard return; a 52-yard kick return by Akron; and 179 yards on seven kick returns to Illinois, including a long of 66 yards.
Kick coverage, though, was not the only worry. A botched punt attempt led to an Illinois field goal, and UNLV (returns of 37 and 20) and Akron (38) each managed excessive punt returns. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's return game had been very quiet and the Badgers longest made field goal of the season was a mere 29 yards.
The one bright spot had come from an unlikely source—punter R.J. Morse. Considered one of the team's biggest question marks prior to the season, Morse, aside from fumbling a snap and taking a six-yard loss and turnover on downs against Illinois, has been quite steady, averaging 41.2 yards per punt with little variation from the season-opening whistle. Wisconsin ranks fifth in the conference with a net punting average of 36.7 yards per attempt.
Wisconsin had escaped these special teams gaffes without much harm—the UNLV loss certainly cannot be pinned on special teams—but with the Big Ten season in gear, the Badgers coverage follies could have become ever-more magnified.
In this context, the last two weeks have been a revelation, if not a perfect turnaround.
Wisconsin's coverage teams have recovered two fumbled punt returns and one fumbled kick return over the past two weeks, resulting in a field goal against both Penn State and Ohio State. Against Penn State the Badgers also benefited from a 55-yard Brandon Williams kick return that set up a 46-yard Mike Allen field goal, and a beautiful 49-yard Morse punt that pinned the Nittany Lions at their own one late in the game.
The biggest play, though, was Jim Leonhard's 65-yard punt return for touchdown that put Wisconsin in the driver's seat, 23-9.
Leonhard nearly broke free on his first return against Ohio State as well, weaving, darting and breaking tackles on his way to a 26-yard return.
The biggest special teams positive against the Buckeyes, though, was the astoundingly improved play of the team's coverage units. In addition to causing Chris Gamble to fumble a punt return, the team allowed just 27 yards on two kick returns and one yard on three punt returns.
"I thought our whole kicking game was much improved and very consistent," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "I thought our tempo was tremendous. I thought our kids really worked hard. Ohio State (has) threats. They can beat you in the kicking game, have beaten people in the kicking game. But we changed up how we kick the ball. I think we kept them off balance."
"We made a few changes in there," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "I saw Zach Hampton went down on his first kick off ever. We had some live work with guys we try to give a chance to and he moved up, moved up to the starting unit, made the first hit. I mean he was screaming down the field and you like to see that. That's what we were looking for. So I thought we made improvement there."
It has not, of course, been all peaches and cream the past two weeks, though. Against Penn State Wisconsin missed an extra point and allowed a touchdown after roughing the punter call against Alex Lewis gave the Nittany Lions a fresh set of downs. Last week, Leonhard muffed a punt, leading to the Buckeyes only points of the first half, a 24-yard Mike Nugent field goal.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
This week's opponent, Purdue, boasts a dangerous return game and one of the best kickers Wisconsin will face. Last week against Penn State, punt returner Anthony Chambers set a Purdue record and earned Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors with a 149-yard performance that included a 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Chambers is averaging 12.7 yards per punt return.
"We had a challenge to get back to where we want to be," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "Our special teams units did a great job for us. Anthony Chambers had a great day returning punts, especially on the touchdown return."
In addition, James Brooks, part of the Boilermakers running back trio, is averaging 26.4 yards per punt return this season, second in the Big Ten. He has a long of 50 yards.
"Our sprinters will have to do a good job and we'll have to do a good job, first of all protecting and do the same things as last week," Alvarez said. "You hit landmarks and you're sound in coverage and make sure that when you have the opportunity you have to tackle. But you have to kick it to them."
Then there is kicker Ben Jones, who is playing his first season at Purdue after transferring from Butler. The sophomore has hit 11-of-13 field goal attempts and is four-for-five from 40 or more yards deep, with a long of 50. His one miss from that range came from 53 yards away against the Nittany Lions.
Punter Brent Slaton is no slouch, averaging 41.2 yards per punt, with 13 of his 34 attempts pinned inside the 20. Purdue is fourth in the league in net punting at 36.8.