Last year, Husker fans went into the season with a lot of enthusiasm. Seeing the team come off of its first Big 12 Championship game appearance since the 1990’s, hopes were high that Nebraska was on the verge of another major step forward. Through rose-colored glasses it seemed as if the pieces were coming together for something special. Among the things exciting Husker fans was the booming leg of Adi Kunalic.
With a rule change moving kickoffs backward, any team with a kicker that could put the ball in the endzone for touchbacks had a major advantage over most of the rest of the country. All a kick returner needed to do was just catch the ball, take a step or two and fall forward and their team might start at the 30 yard line. Even a modestly successful return could put a team at the 35 or 40 to begin their drive.
Last year, Nebraska enjoyed just that kind of advantage with Kunalic, but it went largely unnoticed because even when opponents got the ball in poor field position, they were usually able to drive the length of the field and score. Likewise, the perfect field goal kicking the Huskers enjoyed was easy to miss because opponents were often scoring six touchdowns a game.
But when your team is playing sound defense, all of a sudden these advantages become much more apparent. Go back to the Nevada game to open the season. The Huskers were leading 7-3 and were driving the ball well when Sam Keller telescoped a pass into the hands of a Wolfpack defender who returned it for a Nevada touchdown. The momentum appeared to be shifting in the ‘Pack’s favor when a short kick was taken at the 19 yard line by Cortney Grixby and returned 42 yards down to the Nevada 39. Nine straight rushes later, the Huskers had regained the lead at 14-10. Then Kunalic booms one for a touchback and all of a sudden the roar of the fans helps the Blackshirts push the Nevada offense backwards before a short punt sets up the Huskers at midfield for a drive that all but ices the game by halftime.
Trade kickers in that situation and all of a sudden you have a totally different ballgame. The kicking game may have been evident in the close win over Wake Forest as well. But once the defensive dam burst against USC (and most of the teams thereafter), something like a strong kicking game wasn’t going to get noticed.
But 2008 can be very different. The Huskers can make use of the field position a kicker like Kunalic provides by stuffing opponents when they’re backed up to their own end zone. The 2007 debacle may have obscured it, but the Huskers have a game-changing weapon at kicker and it appears they have a coach that can make it count.