A rugged defensive battle like Saturday’s 23-9 Nebraska victory against Michigan was the perfect time for the Huskers to break out a new weapon: the rugby punt.
Nebraska’s Brett Maher also did his part as a place-kicker, drilling three field goals right down the middle from 19, 51 and 31 yards in the third quarter. But as a punter, Maher kept the Wolverines on their heels by twice rolling to one side — allowing his coverage team a few extra seconds — and ripping line drives at the returner.
The first time, Jeremy Gallon had trouble fielding the ball and it went out of bounds at the Michigan 2-yard line, a net of 55 yards. The second time Maher used the rugby style, his punt netted 41 yards.
“We thought that it would just help us get in coverage a little better,” Maher said. “They didn’t really show much pressure looks, so we thought we’d take advantage of it. We just wanted to give them a different look, and it ended up working out perfectly.”
Maher punted four times for an average of 42.2 yards and put two punts inside the Michigan 20. In a defensive struggle, Maher’s punting and solid field-goal kicking were key components in the win.
“We knew coming into the game special teams were going to play a huge role,” Maher said. “Whoever controls field position and puts points on the board with special teams probably has the best chance at winning. We prepared well all week and made a difference.”
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck faced a pretty big challenge Saturday against Michigan’s defense, and he appreciated the role his kicker played.
“No question, he did a great job,” Beck said. “It’s funny, because if you’ve watched all these Big Ten games over the past two or three weeks, there have been a lot of close, tight ball games. This was a typical Big Ten game. As an offensive coordinator, you want to score more points, but you saw it come to defense, field position, field goals, turnovers and just finding ways to score a couple of touchdowns to get yourself and win, and that’s exactly what happened.”
It was a good night for Maher, and he was feeling it. After ripping his 51-yard field goal, Maher didn’t even watch the entire flight of the ball.
“I knew I hit it good,” Maher said. “I just looked up and saw it was going down the middle. I actually didn’t watch it go the rest of the way through. I just went to celebrate with Jase (holder Jase Dean).”
The kick would have been good from 60 yards, but Maher wasn’t that impressed.
“You don’t really get extra bonus points for that,” he said.
Maher came into the game averaging 41.9 yards per punt, with nine placed inside the opponent’s 20. After a slow start to the season, he has now made 12 of 17 field goals, including a current streak of seven in a row.
Maher said he expects the rest of the games in the Big Ten to be similar to Saturday's win, and if that’s the case, he’s ready to step up.
“That’s kind of what we live for as kickers, to be put in situations like that,” Maher said. “You absolutely want to see us score touchdowns every time. But it’s nice to have a knockout punch. You can put it in the special-teams' hands, and we like our chances when that happens.”