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Jack Freifelder | | October 19, 2016

Week 7 special teams spotlight — Northwestern Wildcats

  Northwestern upended Michigan State 54-40, thanks to a spark from a big punt return touchdown.

It's been a bit of an up-and-down year for the Northwestern Wildcats, and most of the faithful in Evanston, Illinois would agree that this is not how they envisioned the 2016-17 season playing out.

Ditto for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff, but the show must go on despite early-season losses to the Broncos of Western Michigan and the Redbirds of Illinois State (an FCS squad).

A 3-1 span over the next four games helped the Wildcats steer their record even, but to put it bluntly, a middling 3-3 start the season likely leaves NU on the outside looking in on the race for the Big Ten West crown.

At this time last year, the 'Cats had just dropped their second straight conference game to run their record to 5-2. However, five straight wins would follow to help put Northwestern in prime positioning come bowl season.

This season does not have the same feel though. And with looming matchups against Ohio State and Wisconsin, this Northwestern team could have trouble staying above .500, let alone staying eligible for bowl season.

A matchup with Michigan State seemed like it could have been the beginning of the end, with the Spartans favored to push Northwestern to 2-4 on the year. Luckily NU had other plans in mind.

  Northwestern Wildcats wideout Solomon Vault (4) made an impact with his play on special teams.
The day could not have started off much worse, with the Spartans jumping out to an early 14-0 lead well into the first quarter. Northwestern would get on the scoreboard before long though, and go on to outscore the Spartans 33-3 over the next quarter and a half.

Down 33-17, the Spartans began to chip away, though.

First, a 59-yard pass from quarterback Tyler O'Connor to running back RJ Shelton cut the lead to two scores (33-23), then about four minutes later, an 86-yard strike from Connors to Shelton narrowed the margin to just two, 33-31.

Cue the spotlight.

On the ensuing kickoff, Northwestern wideout Solomon Vault was back deep ready to receive the football. However, the kick from Michigan State was well off line and carried Vault over toward the sideline.

Although he initially tries to field the kick on the fly, Vault ends up playing the ball off a bounce. In most cases, not catching the football is basically the biggest faux pas a returnman could make, but here it actually works out to his benefit.

After fielding the football about five yards in front of the endzone, Vault starts up the right sideline as he evades a trio of Michigan State coveragemen. Around the 20-yard line, he wards off a defender with a mild stiff-arm and begins to get into the open field.

As the play develops along the sideline, an opening for a window to cut back across the flow of the coverage emerges. When the play reaches the 40-yard line, Vault makes his move with a hard cut toward the middle of the field.

The last person to get a piece of the ball-carrier is Michigan State's place-kicker Kevin Cronin, who is left grasping at loose jersey threads. The rest of the play is just a showcase for Vault's breakway speed.

On a day where offense was on display in spades, a 95-yard kickoff return for a score proved to be the decisive blow for the 'Cats in their battle against the Spartans. Sure, NU went on to score two more times on the day, en route to scoring the most points against Michigan State under the tenure of head coach Mark Dantonio, but Vault's play on special teams helped keep Michigan State at bay.

It remains to be seen if this win will jumpstart a run for the Wildcats over the latter half of the season, but for now Northwestern and head coach Pat Fitzgerald will savor the victory.

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