Lucas at Large: Specialists prepared to play role Saturday

FB_111021_Nortman_Brad.jpgFor someone who had been little more than an afterthought through the first five games, UW punter Brad Nortman was now hearing tongue-in-cheek comments about being "overworked.''

Against Indiana, Nortman had six punting opportunities -- or two more than he had in the three previous games combined. Prior to last Saturday, he had punted only 10 times overall.

Nortman definitely made each punt count against the Hoosiers. Besides averaging 43.8 yards per kick -- including a long of 52 -- he had four punts downed inside Indiana's 20-yard line (at the 14, 8, 18 and 1).

"I had some good hang time and pooch punts,'' said Nortman, a senior from Brookfield Central.  "I was proud of that. Even though it was a windy day, I worried about what I can control, not the wind.''

Indiana's Nick Stoner had a 10-yard punt return; marking only the second time this season that Nortman had a punt returned. Nebraska's Tim Marlowe had an 11-yard return in the Big Ten opener.

Nortman has turned his kicks into non-returnable items. That's huge, especially in the context of the Badgers' 2010 loss at Michigan State, when Keshawn Martin returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown.

You don't have to remind Nortman of the consequences; how a single play on special teams can impact the outcome. He has often confided that the Martin return has been "seared in my mind.''

In retrospect, Nortman outkicked his coverage; an old school cliché that still rings true. Could the specialists -- kickers or returners -- factor into Saturday night's rematch in East Lansing?

Martin is still around; still dangerous.

Meanwhile, the UW's Jared Abbrederis leads the nation in punt return average (22.75). That includes a score against Indiana and one that was called back because of a penalty against South Dakota.

"Coach (Bielema) always says it's one-third of the game, along with offense and defense,'' Nortman said. "Special teams are kind of an X-factor, a momentum swing, for the good or the bad.

"It's my job to make sure it's for the good. And there will be a time in this game, if not another game, where special teams, whether it's punt or kick return, will be called upon to make a big play.

"Even though I personally haven't gotten a lot of opportunities to make my presence felt in a game, inevitably I will be thrown into a situation that will require me to have a good punt.''

Nortman was quick to add, "I expect every punt to be a good punt.''

While Nortman has been in big games and pressure situations before, Michigan State's Mike Sadler has not been. Sadler, a redshirt freshman, has replaced Aaron Bates, a second-team All-American.

Bates was a four-year fixture.

Sadler has 23 career punts; 136 fewer than Nortman.

Spartan Stadium can be unforgiving to kickers; experienced or inexperienced.

"Besides the chilly Midwest weather,'' Nortman pointed out, "it's a challenge because of the way the stadium is shaped; the openings and such -- allowing wind drafts to come in and swirl.''

It can be particularly tricky for placekickers, whether it's Michigan State's Dan Conroy, who's 6-of-9 on the season, or Wisconsin's Philip Welch, who's just rounding into form after being injured.

As such, Nortman is hoping the Badgers have an edge since each member of the "field goal operation'' is a senior: the snapper (Kyle Wojta), the holder (Nortman) and the kicker (Welch).

"We've just been around for a long time,'' Nortman conceded.

Welch is just happy to be kicking again after dealing with a frustrating quad injury. Last Saturday, he converted on his first field goal attempt of the season; a 38-yarder against Indiana.

"It helped a lot to get that first one out of the way,'' said Welch. "I'd say that I'm about 90 percent (physically) but with the adrenaline on game day I'll be 100 percent.''

In some ways, the injury might have been a blessing.

"I've learned to appreciate what I had -- coming back now is actually more fun,'' Welch said. "It helped me appreciate the football can be taken away from you at any moment.''

Asked whether he felt any degree of urgency to return as soon as possible from the injury to enhance his NFL marketability, Welch said, "The main thing is helping the team.''

Nortman believes that Welch can be a big help in potentially a close game. "Kyle French stepped in and did a great job; he has a bright future,'' he said. "But having him (Welch) back is an asset.''
ON WISCONSIN