November 17, 2009

Bucks must improve the punt

The long and storied history of the Ohio State/Michigan series has seen more than its fair share of great plays and players but could one make an argument that the punt is just as important as any great touchdown run, shoestring tackle or bone crushing hit? Of course not, punts are the first thing edited out of highlight packages and are rarely remembered unless something catastrophic (or miraculous depending on your side of the field) goes down.

There have been moments where a player like Ted Ginn or Desmond Howard has been able to change the momentum of a game or put a game out of reach by making their opponent pay when things go horribly wrong for the punting team. But even under the best of circumstances the play of each team's punter means so much more than what you would ever expect to see in any quickie box score.

In the game against the Hawkeyes, a game that took more than 60 minutes to decide, the Ohio State punting game was just not where it had been for most of the season. Jon Thoma checked in at less than 36 yards per punt (average) and didn't record a single punt that pinned Iowa inside its own 20 yard line. Both marks were misses in the eyes of Thoma and more importantly his head coach, the special teams' minded Jim Tressel.

"I'm a little disappointed with our (punting) length this past weekend," Tressel said.

Thoma agrees with his coach and takes full responsibility of not getting the job done that is asked of him.

"I have been so focused lately on hitting the ball high, getting no returns, that I kind of let other things fall by the wayside," Thoma said. "That is showing when I have hit it straight up a couple of times and that is not acceptable in anyway. I know what I have to do and I know that I haven't been performing as well as I could and we are going to get better."

Ohio State's senior punter has not been one of the longest hitters under game conditions this season but that trade off has been acceptable with his aim and accuracy in nailing opponents deep in their own territory and giving the Ohio State defense great field position to work with. Last week saw a good week of practice for Thoma but things just weren't meant to be.

"(Last week) we were out there hitting 50 or 60 yard bombs," Thoma said. "Then I get there on Saturday and I felt good warming up but I guess it is getting out there on that field you are focused and want to hit that best punt possible. Sometimes you over swing and hit it straight up and don't hit it where you want to right on the ball."

This weekend Thoma will be able to see the best punter in the league in Zoltan Mesko, a punter who is averaging nearly 45 yards per punt and ranks sixth in the nation in booting the ball. Do punters ever sit back and watch the work of their counterparts on film to see what they are doing? In the case of Michigan's punter Mesko, it is hard not to do that.

"He is built to be the best punter that ever lived," Thoma said. "He is like 6-foot-5 and his legs come up to my neck and they are like tree trunks and he has all of the flexibility in the world. You see those guys over there and they are hitting those moon balls that even if you put everything into one you couldn't hit it like that... when you see someone like that you have to remember to do what you are doing and appreciate what they are doing at the same time."

With the emphasis that Tressel puts on special teams you had better believe that he is fully aware of what a top punter can do to the complexion of a game.

"Their kid leads the league and the nation maybe, I'm not sure, but he's extraordinary and if you lose field position every time you punt you're in for some problem," Tressel added.

Do you try and get out there and out-duel your counterpart when it comes down to a game of field position or even just for bragging rights?

"I don't know about outperforming the other punter because you are punting from different places on the field all of the time," Thoma said. "You can't go into it with that kind of mindset. (You) just have to go into focused on doing your job, although (injured placekicker Aaron Pettrey) did bet me that if I did outperform Zoltan (Mesko) he has something in it for me at the end."

A bet that the rest of the team would gladly help pay off if the Buckeyes do come out on top.

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