On Saturday’s matchup against Buffalo, the Owls proved the age-old adage that special teams make up the third phase of football.
On special teams, the Owls had a blocked field goal, a fake-punt touchdown and outstanding play the whole game from junior placekicker Brandon McManus.
“Those are explosives,” coach Steve Addazio said. “In our plan to win, we measure special teams in how many explosives we have. Those are big plays, block a field goal, hit a fake punt like that. Those things get right on an opposing team, and when you’re on the other side of that, it’s hard.”
McManus handles both placekicking and punting responsibilities on special teams. McManus, who kicked and punted at North Penn High School, is 8-12 this year kicking field goals and has a 48.3-yard average on 20 punts. On a windy day at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday with gusts up to 30 mph, McManus was a perfect 2-2 in field goals and had a punt average of 59.3 yards.
“I’ve been here three year, this was the worst wind at Lincoln Financial Field,” McManus said. “It makes you stick to your fundamentals and your technique.”
McManus was quite the sight on kickoffs. Often kicking with the wind, he had a kickoff average of more than 60 yards. On one of the most memorable touchbacks you’ll ever see, McManus boomed a third-quarter kickoff well past 70 yards that was inches away from landing in the stands on the opposite end of the field.
“What we really embrace on special teams is our kickoff team,” McManus said. “It sets the tone for every game.”
When McManus wasn’t pinning the Bulls down into bad field position, other players stepped up to make key plays on special teams.
Junior linebacker Ahkeem Smith made the play of the game in the second quarter when, after the Owls lined up to punt on the Bulls’ 49-yard line, Smith took a direct snap around the edge and ran for a 49-yard fake-punt touchdown. Smith, a former running back who converted to defense in training camp, said special teams and the coaches had that play in their arsenal and were waiting to use it all season.
“I’ve been telling [Addazio] to call it almost every game now, and he finally called it today,” Smith said. “We saw that it was the perfect situation, so we called it before they snapped the ball.”
“I was ready to roll on that one,” Addazio added. “We got the look we wanted and BAM, we’re gone.”
In addition to having four tackles and a sack on defense, senior cornerback Kee-Ayre Griffin made a huge special teams play to preserve the shutout.
After Buffalo drove the ball into Owls’ territory late in the second quarter, the Bulls lined up to kick a 39-yard field goal to try to make it a three-touchdown game before halftime. Griffin rushed around the edge and blocked the kick, the Owls’ fourth blocked kick of the season.
“It’s a big momentum swing,” Griffin said. “We try to make sure special teams is the third phase of the football game. If we control special teams, it’s an extra boost for us.”
The Owls’ success on special teams directly translated to their success on offense and defense. The Owls dominated field position and time of possession. The Owls controlled the ball for 39 of the contest’s 60 minutes, and as a result, both the offensive and defensive units were able to stay fresh throughout the game.
“Special teams is one third of the game,” McManus said. “Special teams always give us a boost on offense and defense.”
“You need to play as a team-offense, defense and special teams,” Addazio added.