It’s a unit that doesn’t get the attention the offence or defence does. In fact, the only time you notice it is when a glaring mistake is made to give up a big play.
But the Muskies’ 23-0 shutout over the Kenora Broncos here last Thursday was keyed by special teams, turning the game around on a single play late in the first half.
Leading 3-0 courtesy of a 30-yard Adam McTavish field goal, the black-and-gold had the Broncos pinned inside their own 20-yard line and ready to punt on third-and-long.
And then it happened.
The Muskies broke through the Kenora line and blocked the punt, recovering the ball inside the Bronco 10-yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Gary Wager hooked up with running back David Gemmell on a perfectly-designed screen play for a five-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
The Broncos were never in the game after that.
“We haven’t lost a special teams battle in three years,” enthused head coach Bob Swing. “They were tremendous.
“Since day one, we have emphasized blocking punts,” he stressed.
But the story early in the game was the Muskie defence. Once again, they made Kenora’s attack look futile and inept. The Broncos had to punt after a quick two-and-out series several times, and could not establish either a running or passing game all afternoon.
“I thought defensively, we stood our ground and made big plays,” defensive co-ordinator Brent DeBenedet said.
Those included interceptions by Jamie Booth, Mark Mercure, and Wager (who also plays defence). Kris Esselink also pounced on a loose ball for a fumble recovery.
“Jock Gemmell and Mark Mercure all made big plays but they all played well,” said DeBenedet. “Our secondary played well and for this game, we contained their running game.
“The team is starting to come together and it’s 12 guys playing as a unit,” he added. “It didn’t matter what 12 guys were out there—they played as a team.”
Swing said the pass coverage was “exceptional,” and the tackling was much improved compared to their lopsided loss to Wadena, Mn. two weeks earlier.
“The key is the first contact on the ball carrier,” he noted. “We were pretty good—darn good—the kids did everything we asked of them.”
Still, while the defence looked tremendous, the Muskie offence struggled through three quarters to gain any type of momentum. But they exploded for 13 points in the fourth to put the game away.
First, David Gemmell rambled for a 100-yard touchdown run, breaking through a hole on the right side of the line and eluding a pair of Kenora tacklers to make it 16-0 (the extra point was missed).
Then the Muskies iced the game midway through the fourth when Wager threw a perfect strike to a streaking Mercure down the left sideline for the 52-yard major.
Swing said the coaching staff knew the offence would struggle early but felt the offensive line gained confidence—and played much better—as the game wore on.
“We knew physically, we would be outmatched, but I think as the game wore on, they started to [get better],” he observed.
Next action for the senior Muskies is this Friday when they travel to Greenbush, Mn. for a 7 p.m. exhibition game. They resume NorWOSSA action Oct. 22 here against Dryden.