Injuries highlight risk in having top players return kicks

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Jayden Reed has been a big part of Michigan State’s resurgence this year, returning two punts for touchdowns while also ranking among the Big Ten’s top receivers.

That kind of double threat can be valuable to a team – but at Maryland and Michigan, it went much differently.

Dontay Demus and Ronnie Bell, two of the top receivers in the league, are out for the season after getting injured on special teams. Bell was hurt in Michigan’s season opener returning a punt, and Maryland lost Demus while he was running back a kickoff in a game earlier this month. As much as teams want to have their most dynamic players return kicks, there is obviously some risk.

“The No. 1 thought is who can help us do the task at hand,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “And then there’s always going to be risk involved, and yet I know players want to play and guys want to be able to help the team in any way that they can.”

This year, Wisconsin’s main punt returner is Dean Engram, a backup cornerback. Wide receiver Devin Chandler, who does not have any receptions this season, returns kickoffs.

Other teams have put some of their top playmakers in return roles.

Nobody has to tell Michigan fans what an impact a player can make on special teams. Wide receiver Desmond Howard won a Heisman Trophy in part because of his contributions running back kicks. Defensive back Charles Woodson, another Heisman winner, did that too.

When coach Jim Harbaugh was questioned about the pros and cons of putting a pivotal player back on punts, he said great players do that job, pointing to Howard, Woodson and former Central Michigan star Antonio Brown.

“The best players play positions,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the way it works.”

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker shares that philosophy when it comes to Reed.

“I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to have him back there,” Tucker said earlier this season. “He can make plays back there and put us in good field position. He wants to be back there.”

There has been growing concern in recent years about the injury risk of kickoffs, to the point that a fair catch on a kickoff now puts the ball at the 25-yard line. Still, the temptation to try to break a big return remains strong.

Nebraska has used starters at other positions to return kicks and punts, hoping for a game-changing play – although coach Scott Frost said he understands the need to keep players healthy for their regular jobs.

“Normally I would weigh it quite a bit. Right now, I want someone back there who is going to catch it and give us a chance to return it,” Frost said. “We’re fielding it right now. We need to make a play in the return game at some point and that would really help us, so normally you make sure everybody is healthy. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.”

A week after Demus’ injury, Maryland still used Rakim Jarrett – now its top healthy receiver – as a kick returner against Ohio State. However, most of the Buckeyes’ kickoffs in that game last weekend resulted in fair catches or touchbacks.

Brandon Joseph, an All-America safety for Northwestern, had punt returns of 65 and 46 yards against Indiana State in the Wildcats’ second game of the season, but he hasn’t returned any since.

Garrett Wilson, who is Ohio State’s leading receiver, has been the primary punt returner for the Buckeyes for the last three seasons. But as coach Ryan Day pointed out, punt returns and kickoff returns are quite a bit different.

“Kickoff return, there’s just a lot of momentum on both sides. It’s one of those things we’ve looked at really, really hard to decide if, last year as you know, we didn’t do that. We tried to take the ball to the 25,” he said. “This year, we’re picking and choosing our spots we think that’s appropriate. A big part of that is the guys who are on that unit. It’s not just the returner. It’s everybody involved.”

No. 2 Michigan beats Purdue 43-22 for Big Ten crown

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INDIANAPOLIS – Donovan Edwards ran for 185 yards and a score, J.J. McCarthy threw three touchdown passes and No. 2 Michigan beat Purdue 43-22 on Saturday night for its second straight Big Ten title and a likely No. 2 playoff seed.

College football’s winningest program has the first 13-win season in school history. Two more victories would give the Wolverines (13-0, No. 2 CFP) their first national championship since 1997.

And with injured star Blake Corum sidelined by a season-ending left knee injury, Edwards stole the show for the second straight week.

After shredding rival Ohio State for 216 yards and two scores last week, Edwards broke open this game with a 60-yard on the first play of the second half to set up one score. He added a 27-yard TD sprint on Michigan’s next series to make it 28-13.

Purdue (8-5) never recovered from Michigan’s quick, seven-play onslaught after it trailed 14-13 at halftime.

But quarterback Aidan O'Connell and receiver Charlie Jones helped the Boilermakers make it interesting for a while.

O’Connell was 32 of 47 with 366 yards and two interceptions after missing some practice time early this week to mourn the death of his oldest brother. Jones, who lost to Michigan in last year’s game while playing for Iowa, had 13 receptions for 162 yards.

It just wasn’t enough.

Michigan showed no signs of a hangover after last week’s rout over the Buckeyes, taking a 7-0 lead on its opening possession with a 25-yard TD pass from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland.

Purdue answered with Devin Mockobee’s 1-yard scoring run to tie the score then took the lead on Mitchell Fineran’s 33-yard field goal.

Michigan answered by taking advantage of an offside call on fourth-and-6 by going for the first down, picking it up and eventually converting the drive into a 7-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Luke Schoonmaker. They never trailed again.

Edwards big run set up Kalel Mullings‘ 1-yard TD plunge before Edwards celebrated his own scoring run.

All Purdue could muster was three more field goals.

McCarthy was 11 of 17 with 161 yards and one interception.

Corum posted a message on Twitter on Saturday morning to say his knee surgery went well.


Purdue: The Boilermakers’ magical season ended with a solid showing in the championship game where they played better than most expected. Still, they won the Big Ten’s wild, wild West, both trophy games and should be bound for a warm-weather bowl game.

Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines may have already locked up a top-two seed thanks to losses by Southern Cal and TCU. Michigan now has back-to-back conference crowns for the first time since 2003-04 though the hard part remains – ending its national title drought.


Brohm played one season in the now defunct XFL and has acknowledged that experience helped him understand how to inject personality and creativity into play calling. It was on full display Saturday.

A surprise end around set up Purdue’s first score, a fake punt helped keep its second scoring drive alive and then Mockobee sprinted 25 yards on a fake flea-flicker in the third quarter.


Purdue: Will find out its bowl game, destination and opponent Sunday.

Michigan: Waiting to see where its headed and who it will face in the national semifinals.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.


This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.


North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.


Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.