EUGENE, Ore. – Special teams? More like not-so-special teams.
Bad jokes aside, Saturday was a day that Michigan, and even Oregon, would like to forget from a kicking standpoint.
From the opening field goal attempt to the final kickoff, the game hinged on either team’s ability, or ineptitude, on special teams. Given that both teams were known for their explosive offenses, it was shocking to many that of the 58 points scored in Oregon’s 31-27 win, 24 were the result of special teams play.
“Coach (Mike) Bellotti was stressing before the game that special teams would be the difference,” Oregon defensive back and punt returner Steven Moore said. “Our two blocked kicks and punt return for a touchdown made a huge difference in the game and left it wide open.”
While it was the Ducks’ special teams that made the ultimate difference, Michigan was at its best and worst, all on Oregon’s first drive. Holding the ball for almost 10 minutes of the first quarter, the Ducks’ offense finally stalled at the Michigan 6-yard line. Oregon kicker Jared Siegel lined up for a 22-yard field goal, only to have it blocked by Michigan safety Marlin Jackson, who crashed through the left side of the offensive line. The blocked kick landed in the hands of senior Jeremy LeSueur, who took it to the house and gave Michigan a 6-0 lead.
That lead would stay at six, as Michigan punter/kicker Adam Finley sent the extra point wide right. Finley would later have an extra point blocked by Oregon in the fourth quarter when Michigan pulled within four points with just 2:18 remaining.
Even with a blocked kick against them, the Ducks’ special teams would answer back in full force.
“We scored two touchdowns on special teams, and we generally corralled their punt return – which was the best in the nation – so overall I’m pleased,” Bellotti said.
The first of Oregon’s two special team touchdowns came after a Michigan three-and-out with the Ducks leading 14-6. Finley punted the ball to Oregon’s 39-yard line, and as if there was no one in front of him, Moore broke two arm tackles en route to a 61-yard return for a touchdown.
“It was like floating on air,” Moore said. “I didn’t see who was blocking. I just saw grass – open grass – and I give all the credit to the people blocking for me.”
Oregon’s other touchdown came with 6:55 left in the game. With the Wolverines down just three, Michigan was preparing to punt from its own 27-yard line when Oregon’s J.D. Nelson pushed his way through Michigan’s personal protector, Brian Thompson, to block Finley’s punt. Nelson recovered the punt at the 4- yard line and almost stumbled in for the touchdown. But Thompson tried to correct his ways by forcing Nelson to fumble the ball into the endzone. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Oregon wide receiver Jordan Carey fell on the ball for what would be the winning touchdown.
Oregon even had three punts downed within the 5-yard line and kept Michigan punt returner Steve Breaston in check, allowing him just four yards on one return.
But for all of its miscues, Michigan’s special teams did have some bright moments. After Oregon scored to make it 31-21, LeSueur took the ensuing kickoff to midfield. But even that had its dark moments when Michigan was called for holding, taking the ball back to Michigan’s 18.
The Wolverines also got a nice play out of freshman Garrett Rivas, who had Michigan’s only converted extra point and had his onside kick recovered by wide receiver Braylon Edwards to keep Michigan’s hopes alive.
And even for all the acclaim it got, Oregon’s special teams didn’t have a perfect game by any means.
The Ducks barely averaged more than 20 yards a carry on kickoffs, while Siegel had problems keeping the ball in bounds, booting two kickoffs over the sidelines to give Michigan good field position on its own 35.
“Jared Siegel was very inconsistent today,” Bellotti said. “He kicked the last kickoff from the 20, and it was probably a 75-yard kickoff or more. He kicked a couple out of bounds that, as he said, almost made him come over and throw up on the sidelines.”