Commentary: If Bison have a weakness, it's special teams
FARGO — The Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game in January stood out as one particularly substandard for North Dakota State's special teams. James Madison punt returner D'Angelo Amos had two long returns to set up scores. Bison punters Jackson Koonce and Garret Wegner had several short boots. Kicker Cam Pedersen had an important field goal blocked on a low kick in the fourth quarter, setting up a heart-attack finish.
The Dukes even pulled off a successful fake punt in what appeared to be an obvious fake-punt situation late in the fourth quarter, giving them a chance for a game-winning touchdown.
It didn't happen, of course. NDSU prevailed 17-13 in Frisco, Texas, for the program's sixth championship in seven years. But a year-long nick, often masked by the Bison's outstanding offense and defense, was slashed wide-open.
The Bison special teams were nothing of the sort.
"We were not very good," NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said.
If you're looking for an area in which the Bison could be considered weak — and there are certainly some spots on this preseason No. 1-ranked team that have question marks — special teams could be it. It's all relative, of course. NDSU is still a favorite to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference and make another trip to Frisco, but the Bison special teams — punting, kicking, returning, coverage — have holes to plug.
For a program that has dominated its division for the better part of a decade, the 2017 FCS statistics stand out. The Bison were 80th in net punting average at 34.79 yards per punt. They were 114th in punt return defense, allowing 12.19 yards per return. They were 85th in net punt return, averaging 5.91 yards per return.
The hits keep coming. NDSU was 81st in kickoff return defense (20.95 yards allowed per return) and 102nd in blocked field goals allowed (5). The Bison ranked 63rd by making 62.5 percent of their field goal attempts (10 of 16).
"It's a big concern for us. We've done a really good job through (early fall camp) of emphasizing our special teams," Klieman said. "We've probably practiced a little bit more, our techniques and drills. In talking with staff, when I had my conversations with those guys, it's an area we have to improve upon. All of our special teams, not just kicker or punter or long snapper. All of our special teams."
Sure to make things more interesting is that the Bison will be breaking in new first-stringers at punter (Wegner replaces the graduated Koonce), holder (Wegner replaces graduated backup quarterback Cole Davis) and long snapper (Ross Kennelly replaces graduated All-America James Fisher).
Back are Pedersen, kick returners Ty Brooks and Bruce Anderson and punt returner Darrius Shepherd. Klieman adjusted the coaching end of it putting assistant Tyler Roehl in charge of kickoff return.
"You drill it more and break it down more within each segment," Klieman said.
It's not just the skill players who need to be better, Klieman said, but the blocking and tackling need work, too. Part of last year's slide was due to injuries, no doubt — Klieman noted backup running back Adam Cofield as an excellent special teams player who missed the most of the season with a knee injury — but the Bison were missing something. Aces like punter Ben LeCompte and kicker Adam Keller seem a distant memory. It was Anderson's freshman year when he ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns in the playoffs, including a game-changer to start the second half in the FCS quarterfinals against Northern Iowa. The same year Eric Perkins brought the Fargodome to a deafening roar with a punt return TD in the semifinals against Richmond.
The Bison have been good enough since then, including some remarkable moments, but they've lost their special-teams dominance.
Pedersen is a fine example. He booted a 37-yard game-winner to beat Iowa in 2016 and buried Youngstown State with a 36-yard field goal in overtime last season. Both massive kicks. But overall Pedersen lags far behind MVFC leaders in field goal percentage and has gone through shaky stretches in each of his three seasons. He's made a so-so 61.7 percent of his field-goal tries (56 of 70) for his career.
"It's obviously not where I want to be. I don't think anybody wants to be there," Pedersen said. "I just try to take it one kick at a time and try to make the next one. Hopefully that will get me to where I want to be."
Pedersen isn't going anywhere. He'll be the Bison kicker this year, helping groom Fargo Shanley graduate Jake Reinholz to be next in line, trying to mentor the young guy into making the big kick in the big moments. Pedersen knows what happened in Iowa City and Youngstown has no bearing on the present.
"Tomorrow is all that matters and you're not guaranteed anything," Pedersen said. "I just try to look forward."
That would be good advice for all the Bison special teams players.