Nebraska Football Place Kicker Connor Culp Walking Off Field
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Dawson Dishes on Penalties, Special Teams Woes

August 31, 2021

“Don’t let one mistake become two mistakes by trying to do too much.”

That’s the message Mike Dawson gave his players who made costly mistakes in Nebraska’s 30-22 loss at Illinois. Dawson, the Huskers’ outside linebackers coach who also handles the special teams, touched on a multitude of topics during his media availability on Tuesday at Memorial Stadium head of Saturday’s home-opener against Fordham.

The majority of the topics focused around Caleb Tannor’s two backbreaking penalties and the misfires in the kicking game. Most of Tannor’s hit on Illinois quarterback Art Sitkowski was fine, Dawson said, except for the finish.

“You cannot hit anyone with your head, and you cannot use any part of your body to hit anybody else in the head. It’s pretty cut and dry,” Dawson said.

But it wasn’t just Tannor’s roughing-the-passer penalty. He tacked on one for taunting, too. That flag was also deserved, Dawson said, adding that he watched Tannor stand over Sitkowski following the hit while watching film of the game, which made it an easy call for the refs.

Recently there’s been a real crackdown on taunting in both college football and the NFL. Dawson knows all about that thanks to his time as an assistant with the New York Giants in 2019.

“If you see that happening, that thing’s going to get called and it’s going to be an easy call for those guys,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Dawson wants to see his players acting like emotionless zombies on the field after making a play. It’s the exact opposite, actually.

Dawson wants to see that fire on the field and wants his team celebrating when good things happen. Players rarely make plays by themselves in football, and that’s something Dawson knows well, especially after watching film of the Illinois game. During Pheldarius Payne’s two-sacks-in-four-plays stretch, a teammate almost always had a hand in helping the play develop. Take Tannor for example, who bull-rushed his offensive tackle to a point where it caused Sitkowski to step up into the pocket and into more traffic, helping produce Payne’s sacks.

A couple sacks within that short amount of time should be celebrated—but the correct way. It can be contagious.

“We want to play with emotion, we don’t want emotion to play with us,” Dawson said. “So if we get overheated or over excited and we get outside the framework of what we’re supposed to be doing in the game, we need to check ourselves a little bit and get back to basics and controlling your emotions.

“If a guy makes a great play, I want him to spread around the mojo. Tap on somebody else, spread it to the rest of your teammates. And if I’m a guy who saw one of my teammates make a great play, I want to steal some of that mojo. So go get on his hat and celebrate as a team.”

But players will make mistakes, and Dawson understands that. Cam Taylor-Britt cost his team two points when he decided to field a punt inside his own 5-yard line and touched his knee on the goal line for a safety.

“Obviously it was a poor decision, he knows that,” Dawson said.

Taylor-Britt wasn’t the only one who had rough moments at Illinois, though. Connor Culp of all people missed two extra-point attempts, something you wouldn’t expect from the reigning Big Ten Kicker of the Year.

Dawson said kicking is similar to your swing on the golf course. The swinging motion needs to be executed, or else the ball won’t go where you want it. And on Saturday, Culp’s leg swing didn’t look right. Considering Culp was a perfect 7-for-7 on extra points in last Friday’s practice, a 1-for-3 performance against Illinois was surprising.

“Anyone who’s ever seen me play golf knows my golf swing isn’t very good,” Dawson joked, “and that’s what his (Culp) swing looked like. He was up early with his eyes, his body wasn’t in great position, so he’s gotta execute. He’s gotta do his job.”

Unlike offensive and defensive players, specialists are unique in that they only have so many chances to do their jobs. They may only get four or five opportunities to do what they do in a game, so when they’re called on they need to produce. Their margin for error is smaller than everyone else’s.

“One mistake can be catastrophic, so he’s not off the hook because of his history,” Dawson said of Culp. “That doesn’t matter, that’s all in the past and you can’t be caught reading your press clippings when you do well, and same thing when you don’t do well. You don’t dwell on it and you have to get ready, have a short memory and put that ball through the uprights.”

Nebraska’s punt game was another area of Saturday’s loss that was under the microscope. Daniel Cerni had a shaky first game as the Huskers’ punter.

The Australian had some solid kicks, but averaged just 34.4 yards per punt and couldn’t land any of his five kicks inside Illinois’ 20-yard line. There may have been some first-game jitters, according to Dawson. Cerni was out all of last season following an injury in preseason camp and Saturday was his first game playing in front of a crowd like the one at Illinois.

“He had a couple that were pretty good, and to me the one coming out that ended up being a 38-yard punt, we were trying to get a roll on that,” Dawson said. “But he checked it up a little bit, instead of it rolling forward for two and having a 42-yard net that you feel decent about, it rolls back for two and you don’t like it as much. When you go with the Australian-style punters, and especially if you’re kicking cross field and doing different things, that ball’s going to bounce weird and sometimes it’ll roll forever.”

It wasn’t all bad in the kicking game, though. Brendan Franke had a nice day as the kickoff specialist, booting four of his six attempts through the endzone. The kicking errors elsewhere that fans saw at Illinois are physical, not mental, which is a good thing because they can be corrected.

“You gotta swing your leg,” Dawson said.

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