Excellent play by Georgia State’s special teams is one of the ways the Panthers can try to keep Saturday’s game at Tennessee close.
They can’t miss field goals and they can’t give up unnecessary yards on kick returns and punt returns.
Georgia State’s special teams, other than the field-goal unit, played fairly well against South Carolina State, providing some hope for this week.
Matt Hubbard averaged 62.2 yards per punt, including an 80-yard bomb. He said on Wednesday that he’s never kicked a punt that long in the game. His effort resulted in the Colonial Athletic Association special teams player of the week. The average would have set an FCS record, except the NCAA doesn’t recognize the effort because Georgia State is in year one of a two-year transition to FBS.
Hubbard said the 80-yard punt felt good coming off his foot, but even he was surprised that it traveled some 60-yards in the air. He credited the gunners on the outside for getting down the field quickly not just on that punt, but on his four others, which helped his average.
Hubbard, a sophomore and native of Peachtree City, was one of the bright spots on the special teams last year after he averaged 41.9 yards per punt.
Hubbard grew up playing goalie on soccer teams, and then transitioned into football. Once he got serious about punting, he got a punting coach. He credits graduate assistant Brandon Lupo for helping him with his fundamentals at Georgia State. He said Lupo is teaching him to keep his stride into the punt short, which produces more power.
In addition, Georgia State’s kick-return team limited South Carolina State to 20.5 yards per return, and it averaged 24.1 yards per return. Georgia State averaged 18.8 yards per return last year, and opponents averaged 20.5.
While Hubbard was solid, Georgia State’s field-goal teams weren’t as good. However, they could get a lift from the return of Christian Benvenuto. He was suspended for the opener as a result of an offseason arrest.
David Miller won the kicking job during Benvenuto’s suspension, but was scratched from the South Carolina State game because of a foot injury. Matt Ehasz came on and missed two of his four attempts against South Carolina State, including a 24-yarder that hit the upright.
Despite dealing with hamstring and hip-flexor injuries last year in his right (kicking) leg, Benvenuto was the team’s most accurate kicker, hitting nine of his 17 attempts. Six of his misses were from 45 yards or longer. He said he is 100-percent healthy.
Coach Bill Curry said the starting kicker for this week’s game will likely be a game-time decision because he said they are all kicking well.
“I’m really excited to come back and show the guys I want to be here,” Benvenuto said. “This is what I want to do and what I came here for.”
Benvenuto said he never thought about quitting the team after the April arrest, because he said “it feels like home.”
But he did learn a lesson.
“Coach Curry says that adversity reveals if you are a true man,” Benvenuto said. “I’m not saying I’m a grown man or done maturing. But after something like what happened to me happened, you have two choices: You can go back home and stay home, say I’ve had my shot and it’s over.
“Or you can come back, which is what I’ve done, try to come back with a vengeance and showcase what we can do as a unit.”
Curry and defensive coordinator Anthony Midget said they were pleased with the play of the defensive linemen and linebackers in the loss to South Carolina State. Curry repeatedly singled out nose tackle Terrance Woodard, saying he played the best game of his career. He finished with a five tackles, including a tackle for loss.
“My point of emphasis is just to get off the ball and create havoc in the backfield to give the defense an opportunity to make a big play,” Woodard said.
He credited having four down linemen in the new 4-2-5 system for helping him produce a career-high in tackles.
“It makes it easier to get through,” he said. “There’s less people to worry about.”
Georgia State’s defensive linemen will face one of their biggest challenge against Tennessee on Saturday. The Vols’ starting offensive line averages 319 pounds. Georgia State’s defensive line averages 278. Woodard didn’t seem worried.
“Getting off the ball is everything,” Woodard said. “If I can get off the ball and get into them I can beat them.”
Woodard also credited losing weight (he won’t say how much) with improving his quickness, which is improving his results. He was listed at 320 pounds in last year’s media guide and this year’s.
“I feel two-times quicker,” he said.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu