October 7, 2010

The sweet sounds of special teams

Pacific Lutheran celebrates
Pacific Lutheran celebrated a field goal on the final play to beat crosstown rival Puget Sound, one of several big special teams plays last Saturday in Division III football.
Pacific Lutheran athletics photo

It is often said football is a game of inches. Last Saturday, in no fewer than six games across the country decided by remarkable special teams plays, the distance between winning and losing was better measured by sound.

There was Case Western Reserve coach Greg Debeljak overhearing his field goal block unit saying “We’re going to get this one.” There was the shouting from the grandstand at Widener as freshman Laquan Robinson returned a second punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against previously unbeaten FDU-Florham. And then there was what coach Ben McEnroe heard as he realized a game he thought his Cal Lutheran team should already have sealed would be decided by the foot of Redlands kicker Joe MacMillan.

“One of the sweetest sounds in coaching,” McEnroe said. “That double thump of a kick and a block.”

With 16 seconds left, MacMillan was attempting a 40-yarder to complete the Bulldogs’ comeback from down 21-9 at the half. Field goals of that distance are far from automatic in Division III, but MacMillan had made a 40-yarder earlier in the game and was 8 of 11 from 40 or beyond as a sophomore and junior, with a long of 47.

“You just feel like it’s out of your hands a little bit,” McEnroe recalls. “I had a time of introspection, or reflection. We had opportunities to ice it, and I was a little upset it even came down to that.”

Rian Younker and Jeff Miller crashed through the A-gap, over the right guard, and Miller, a senior listed at 6-foot-5, blocked the kick with his elbow.

McEnroe, who said it’s nearly impossible to track the ball in a quick-hit situation like that, from the sideline in a night game, trusted that double-thump sound and knew his team had beaten perhaps the SCIAC’s toughest challenger.

Earlier in the day, more than 1,100 miles north along the Pacific Coast, Pacific Lutheran’s Richard Isett also trusted his ears during the craze of a game-winning field goal attempt.

“You can tell a lot just from the sound, if you got a hold of the ball,” said Isett, who did just that when his 49-yard kick beat Puget Sound on the final play of the game. “That or how it comes off your foot. You can feel it.”

Though Isett kicked at Nevada in 2005, he didn’t come to PLU in search of game-ending glory. Field goal kicking is not a Lutes specialty – they didn’t attempt one for 36 games between 1998 and 2001, or at all in the 2008 season. Last year they were 2-for-5. Isett, who starts at outside linebacker for the Lutes and had a team-high eight tackles, doesn’t even focus solely on the job.

Strangely though, in the Wednesday practice period led by assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jud Keim, Isett had gone through game-winning situations.

“We usually don’t go back that far,” Isett said of the 49-yard kick. “It’s not that I don’t have the leg. It’s that at that distance, the snap has to be perfect, the hold has to be perfect and you have to get all your leg into it.”

Though they usually practice tries from 40 or 45 yards, the Wednesday before, Isett kicked from 50 in practice, and the Lutes did a seven-second end-of-game drill, where they ran from the sidelines, lined up for the game-winner and kicked it.

Against Puget Sound, Isett had missed a 37-yard attempt wide right in the first quarter, and had the grass come out from below his plant foot on a blocked point after with 4:40 to go in the game. That allowed the Loggers’ extra point with 21 seconds left to tie the score at 28. A 20-yard completion from Jord Rasmussen to Greg Ford, and a 15-yard personal foul quickly got PLU in position for the longest kick of Isett’s career, going back to high school in Juneau, Alaska.

From the right hash mark, with the hold between the 38- and 39-yard lines, Isett struck the ball cleanly, and heard the accompanying sound. It sailed through the uprights with several yards to spare, and the Lutes mobbed him at midfield.

“It was cool to come through,” he said. “It’s one I’ll remember. That will stay with me for a long time.”

Special days
A look at some of Saturday’s special teams influenced-wins

A PAT that would have given St. Thomas a one-point lead late in regulation clanks off the right upright, but St. John’s returns the favor by missing a PAT off the left upright in overtime in the 27-26 game.

UW-Eau Claire’s Chad Samuelson blocked a 27-yard UW-Stevens Point field goal attempt with 10 seconds left in regulation to force overtime and a 20-13 Blugods win.

PLU’s Richard Isett kicks a 49-yard field goal as time expires to beat Puget Sound, 31-28.

CLU’s Jeff Miller blocks Redlands’ 40-yard field goal attempt to preserve a 24-22 win.

CWRU’s Jacob Adams blocks a PAT in overtime for a 24-23 win against Allegheny.

Freshman Laquan Robinson runs back two punts of more than 60 yards each for touchdowns in a 35-20 win against then-3-0 FDU-Florham.

Being the hero, like Jeff Miller or Richard Isett, is what can happen when players tune in to another distinct sound: That of a coach repeatedly emphasizing that special teams can tilt games. A coaching adage goes that somewhere between a quarter and a third of a game’s plays are on special teams.

“I’m sure everybody at least gives lip service to it being a big part of the game,” says CWRU’s Debeljak. “One thing we believe is you have to play your best players, your playmakers. It’s not a a place to stick your young guys.”

Zach Homyk, the Spartans’ top wide receiver, blocked a field goal midway through the third quarter against Allegheny, and in overtime, Jacob Adams, the leading tackler, blocked an extra point to end it.

“Arguably our best offensive and defensive players won the game for us on special teams,” Debeljak said.

And that’s how the Spartans like it.

 “We play a JV schedule, and one of our running backs asked off kickoff team, and I kind of went berserk on him,” Debeljak said. “ ‘We don’t do that here. If you want to come off, I’ll take you off on offense.’ ”

Adams’ block and the raucous on-field celebration it set off bring to life what special teams coordinators and their head coaches have been trying to emphasize. The punt, kickoff, field goal and return units are major, not an afterthought.

“If you’re playing a team that’s evenly matched,” says Widener coach Isaac Collins, “or you’re even outmanned a little, special teams are one way you can level the playing field.”

“We understand that special teams are basically a third of the game,” says Cal Lutheran sophomore Jacob Norlock, who was on the field for the Kingsmen’s game-saving block against Redlands. “Especially early in the season. Teams are still learning to play as a team, so that’s one of the factors that can determine the outcome.”

Collins says Widener might not have beaten Florham if not for the punt return unit. Robinson’s 63-yard return gave the Pride a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game, and his 62-yard return put them ahead 21-13 early in the final quarter of a 35-20 win.

“They decided on Saturday to cut the middle man out and took two to the zone,” Collins said.

Success might breed success.

“I think so,” Collins said. “Now people are going to be getting up on their seats in the stands because we’ve done something special. They’re going to want to see you do it again. The bar has been raised.”

When they start turning losses into wins, special teams can suddenly become a desirable place to be.

“I think now there’s concrete evidence it won a ballgame for us,” Debeljak said. “In a practice situation, that’s more ammo for the coaches to pound into ‘em the importance of it.”

McEnroe concurs.

“It helps to drive home that message,” he said. “It’s one thing to see it on film, or on TV. It’s another thing to live it.”

Collins, who has a defensive background, uses competition for jobs to motivate his special teamers.

“It’s no different than if you have a great running back and he’s not getting yards. Naturally you’re going to look at the offensive line,” he said. “We pulled guys on and off. It’s a continual evaluation. One way you get ’em better is hang something over their job. If you’re a football player and a competitor, you’re going to want to rise to that challenge.”

Debeljak says the message has sunk in.

“Guys want to be on special teams. It’s part of the culture here now,” Debeljak said. “The better you are at ‘em, the more guys want to be on ‘em. Guys want to be around success.”

After Robinson’s returns, “We had 10 guys celebrating because they had a part in it,” Collins said.

Isett got the recognition for winning the game for PLU, but says kicking is more complex than it looks, and his unit still needs to function as a team.

“Kicking’s just one of those weird positions, it shouldn’t just all be on one guy,” he said. “It could be a bad snap, a bad hold, a block or I could shank it. It’s really important to have the trust of the guys. They’re going to block harder if they’re confident you’re going to make the kick.”

No matter the unit, games can be altered by special teams.

“You have to talk about it and preach it,” Debeljak said, “but you also have to put your money where your mouth is and devote the time to it.”

Now that sounds smart.

Faces in the crowds
For everything that Division III football is in comparison to other levels, one thing it’s not is home to frequent large crowds. A full house at many D-III venues is something in the neighborhood of 5,000 fans. The intimate settings offer a close-and-personal look at the college game – it’s a taste of the player’s experience, being in the stands and hearing a coach explain an adjustment to defensive players while being able to see his whiteboard.

Occasionally, for the most special games at a sprinkling of colleges across the country, the crowds swell to five digits. St. John’s announced an attendance of 16,421 for last Saturday’s Tommie-Johnnie game, which blows away any number Around the Nation had ever seen before in D-III. Despite mild skepticism from our own staff in attendance, who doubted that 6,421 people were standing, sitting in the bowl, in end zone bleachers or occupying other overflow areas at 10,000-capacity Clemens Stadium, the crowd appears to have broken a 16-year old record for attendance.

Around the Nation asked SIDs at handful of schools known to have drawn crowds of 10,000 or more to verify the scattering of attendance figures we’d heard over the years. ATN can’t say if this list covers every game at a D-III venue since the NCAA went to divisions in 1973, nor can we speak for the accuracy of the methods used to determine the figures (except in the case of Wabash, which counts tickets distributed). But it represents a best effort at compiling a list of all-time largest crowds:

16,421: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 10/2/10.
14,437: Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney, 11/12/94. (100th meeting)
13,671: Amherst at Williams, 11/11/89. (New England small-college record)
13,107: Bethel at St. John’s, 11/8/03. (John Gagliardi’s 409th win)
12,903: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 10/17/09.

12,620: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/10/01.
12,511: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/4/95.
12,449: Williams at Amherst, 11/9/96.
12,339: St. Olaf at St. John’s, 10/6/07.
12,123: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 10/27/07.

11,907: Gustavus Adolphus at St. John’s, 9/27/08.
11,790: Carleton at St. John’s, 9/30/06.
11,743: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/15/03.
11,714: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/8/97.
11,669: DePauw at Wabash, 11/11/06.

11,504: DePauw at Wabash, 11/13/04.
11,423: DePauw at Wabash, 11/16/08.
11,028: UW-La Crosse at UW-Whitewater, 10/4/08. (WIAC record)
11,027: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 11/2/02.
10,903: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/9/91.

10,800: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/12/05.
10,567: Bethel at St. John’s, 10/3/09.
10,458: Gustavus Adolphus at St. John’s, 9/25/04.
10,457: Hamline at St. John’s, 10/1/05.
10,300: Ithaca at Cortland State, 11/15/08.

10,189: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/6/99.
10,051: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/4/89.
10,000: Ithaca at Cortland State, 11/3/90.

There are more crowds 9,000 and above than would make for easy reading. One low number ATN must highlight: The Stagg Bowl-in-Salem record of 7,992 for the Mount Union-Bridgewater (Va.) clash in 2001 does not include a substantial number of fans who made the short drive from the Harrisonburg area to support the Eagles, only to be turned away at the gate once Salem Stadium reached capacity. There is a very small chance, but no way to estimate, that 10,000 or more showed up to watch Stagg Bowl XXIX.

The Stagg Bowl record is a rounded 9,000 for the 1982 game in Phenix City, Ala., when nearby West Georgia defeated Augustana 14-0. Augustana didn't lose another game for quite some time, winning four consecutive Division III championships from 1983-86.

Send verifiable additions to this list to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com.

Continue the discussion on Post Patterns.

Over/under

In the place of Poll Positions, where ATN analyzes the how and why of top 25 rankings, let’s try something new: Teams that are ranked a little higher than they probably should be and those that are flying below the radar.

Overranked
No. 8 Wittenberg. We’ve been hard on the Tigers in the podcast, so I won’t harp on them here. At 5-0, they probably deserve to be in the top 25, but after beating Allegheny by three and Oberlin by six, I don’t see what sets Wittenberg apart from a team like Hampden-Sydney, except for last season’s playoff success. Those Tigers, who beat N.C. Wesleyan by 2, Salisbury by 4 and Catholic by 8, are the first team also receiving votes (a.k.a No. 26) for their 5-0 record.

No. 6 Coe. The victory against No. 9 Central is one more top 25 win than some playoff-bound teams will have all year. But the rest of the resume, including a 24-22 squeaker against Dubuque last Saturday, isn’t enough for a team knocking on the door of the top 5.

Underranked
Amherst (2 votes). We’ve got to stop treating the NESCAC like it doesn’t exist when it comes to top 25 rankings. The fact they don’t play in the playoffs or face non-conference teams makes it hard to compare, but that makes the rankings more relevant in their cases. I admit neither of those votes this week came from me, partially because they start so late that where some teams have five weeks of data available, the NESCAC has two. And partially because it’s hard to know which of Trinity, Amherst, Williams and perhaps Middlebury or Colby will contend. But if we vote for undefeated UAA and SCIAC and Centennial and NCAC teams, then we should vote for similarly successful NESCAC teams, built with student-athletes wth similar profiles.

No. 25 Cortland State. At least underranked in relation to No. 17 Montclair State. The NJAC rivals have each beaten Kean, expected to be the conference’s third-most competitive team, while allowing only 19 (Red Dragons) and 20 (Red Hawks) points respectively.

Discuss the top 25 on Post Patterns.

Who are those guys?
ATN skipped this department last week, and not just because Division III went winless in four games in Week 4. It’s that part of the year where mostly everybody has got an in-division opponent on their schedule, but for the scarce few that haven’t, ATN checks in.

In Week 4, two Division II teams (Missouri S&T over UW-La Crosse, Kentucky Wesleyan over Alma) beat D-IIIs, as did two NAIAs (Bethany, Kan. over MacMurray, Azusa Pacific over Chapman).

Southern Virginia and Menlo play D-IIIs in both Weeks 5 and 6. After a 32-23 Thursday night loss to Bridgewater (Va.) at Salem Stadium, home of the Stagg Bowl, Southern Virginia takes on Guilford. Menlo, the former member of the NWC, kept all its scheduled games with conference teams. After a 20-7 loss to Whitworth last week, the Oaks go to Lewis & Clark, which is coming off a victory.

Here’s the Week 6 schedule:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Weeks 4 and 5, 1-1 in 2010)

None

vs. Division II (0-2 in Week 4, 1-4 in 2010)

None

vs. NAIA (0-2 in Week 4, 2-0 in Week 5, 20-12 in 2010)

Guilford at Southern Virginia
Menlo at Lewis & Clark

Also: Trinity Bible at Macalester

Five Ways to Saturday
Follow Around the Nation …

Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related.

On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.

When the column publishes on Thursdays. This week, there's bonus coverage: Three D3football.com writers filed "postcards" from the sites of last week's rivalry games. Those of you who will never get a chance to visit St. John's, Linfield or Mount St. Joseph get a glimpse of the Saturday scene.

In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, the The Daily Dose features a running game day thread, for real-time reactions from across the country. When ATN travels, find bonus observations there or on Twitter.

The press box
Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, road trip suggestions (Non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time work especially well) and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

comments powered by Disqus

Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

Previous Columns

March 3, 2014
Analyzing the NJAC and E8's big moves
Wesley and its Capital Athletic Conference brethren join forces with five New Jersey schools to form...
November 24, 2013
Look who stole the show in Round 1
Many of those who shined in the first round of the 32-team playoffs weren't the nationally elite...
November 21, 2013
Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
ATN assembles a team for an annual look at who might surprise and disappoint us in the 32-team...
November 16, 2013
On this day, they were all big games
Keith McMillan has instant reactions both inside and outside the playoff picture on the final day of...
November 13, 2013
A pre-regional rankings primer
Keith McMillan introduces the committee and their roles, analyzes Pools B and C and takes reader...
November 10, 2013
Snap judgments: Seen from the other side
Millsaps may well have a story for the ages out of Saturday's win vs. Centre, as will Cornell and...
November 7, 2013
Poll positions: What to make of regional rankings
If you haven't seen regional rankings before, or your team hasn't been a contender in recent years,...
November 3, 2013
Snap judgments: The aftermath
With so many games featuring two ranked teams, we should see a lot of movement in Sunday's Top 25...
October 24, 2013
Poll positions: Doing some number crunching
The Top 25 doesn't exist to steal anybody's joy. It is merely a prism through which to view...
October 20, 2013
Snap judgments: Cycling up
Maryville and TCNJ are atop their respective conferences, the John Carroll defense isn't the only...
October 13, 2013
Snap judgments: A blurry picture developing
Not literally -- we get great pictures from our associated photographers and SIDs, but that won't...
October 8, 2013
Poll positions: Streaking up the rankings
Keith McMillan looks at why one computer ranking is making the case for a blue team No. 1, and not a...
October 6, 2013
Snap judgments: Bounceback seasons
Olivet, St. Lawrence, North Park, Husson, Western Connecticut ... the list of improved teams this...
October 3, 2013
Re-ranking the conferences
With September's games, and the vast majority of non-conference play in the books, Around the Nation...
September 29, 2013
Snap judgments: Look away from the Top 25 scores
At first glance -- like say, the scores page, with the top 25 scores the initial finals that catch...
September 26, 2013
History lesson: Engineering rivalries
Week 4 is perhaps the most odd Saturday on the schedule. There aren't many great rivalries, but...
September 24, 2013
Poll positions: How the voters reacted
A kick going wide left produced a wide variety of reactions, but when Wesley got taken down a peg,...
September 22, 2013
Snap judgments: Week 3
The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry is back, UMHB's defensive line is pretty darn good, the MIAA has a better...
September 19, 2013
History lesson: Wesley vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
Now that longtime rivals Wabash and DePauw are both in the North Coast, and Mount Union and...
September 18, 2013
Poll positions: There's some movement coming
The top of the poll didn't change much last week but Saturday's games could have a significant...
September 17, 2013
Off the beaten path
Just because a team isn't in the Top 25 running or mentioned in the podcast or doesn't have a Play...
September 11, 2013
Poll positions: Why teams shuffle
In Around the Nation, Keith McMillan discusses a nonstandard way of assembling the ballot after Week...
September 8, 2013
Snap judgments
Keith McMillan's Around the Nation column returns. You'll see ATN several times a week, including on...

Other Columnists