Minnesota’s offense came to life and its defense dominated in its 44-7 victory over second-tier foe New Hampshire last Saturday.
But to head coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers’ special teams unit was a decisive component in the game.
“That’s a big thing on our football team right now for us to be successful — we’ve got to control field position,” Kill said Tuesday at his weekly press conference.
Kill raved about Australian punter Christian Eldred after Saturday’s win. The punter from down under booted the ball four times in strong winds and averaged 42 yards per punt.
On the other side of the ball, junior A.J. Barker returned three punts for 47 yards. More importantly, he didn’t mishandle the ball.
“That’s what I call hidden yards, and we picked up a lot of yards in the punt game and the punt return game,” Kill said. “It’s a lot easier to score on a shorter field.”
Barker — who’s established himself as the primary punt returner — added that Kill said he doesn’t want the ball bouncing around on punt returns.
“He wants it caught in the air every time because that … saves our offense yards,” he said.
The Gophers were highly inefficient as a special teams group in their season opener at Nevada-Las Vegas and lost the battle of field position.
David Schwerman started the UNLV game at punter, but he began to split time with Eldred after an atrocious 19-yard shank in the first quarter.
The blunders in Las Vegas continued as punt returner Troy Stoudermire muffed a punt and turned the ball over in a crucial moment of the game.
Quarterback MarQueis Gray said he noticed the difference in the special teams unit between the first two weeks. He said that group was the unsung hero of the game with New Hampshire because of how it controlled field position.
Kill agreed with his star signal caller but said the Gophers must build on that this week against Western Michigan.
“[Those are] fundamental things that you have to do to be successful,” he said. “We have no room for error, so those things are important.”
Kill confirmed Eldred is the starting punter, and Barker will move forward as the primary punt returner.
—Minnesota is 3-0 all-time against Western Michigan, but the two teams have not played each other since 1977.
—Jerry Kill is familiar with the Broncos. He coached in the Mid-American conference while at Northern Illinois. Kill is 3-1 all-time against Western Michigan.
—The Gophers have already intercepted four passes this year, matching their interception total from all of last season.
—Western Michigan didn’t punt last week against Eastern Illinois. It was the first time the Broncos hadn’t been forced to punt in a game since 1981.