The Washington State Cougars travel down from the Palouse on Saturday night to take on the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Let's take a look at what Mike Leach and the Cougars of Washington State bring to the table on special teams.
The Cougars began the year needing to fill the big shoes of former kicker Andrew Furney, a much beloved four-year starter who had range from 60 yards out. Early in fall camp, it appeared freshman Erik Powell had answered the bell, and he took over kicking duties for WSU's opener against Rutgers. Powell struggled, however, connecting on only 2-of-5 field goals through the first two games, his longest only 25 yards, and he was replaced with junior Quentin Breshears. Since the change, Breshears has fared slightly better, hitting 3-of-4 FG attempts, with a long of 38 yards. Even with the improvement on field goals, neither kicker has been impressive, and it's safe to say that if the game comes down to field goals, the Utes hold the advantage with "Automatic" Andy Phillips.
Freshman Jordan Dascalo took over as the Cougs punter and is having a good year through four games. Dascalo is averaging 42.6 yards per kick with a long of 53 yards. He's done a good job of putting hang time on his punts, allowing only five of his 10 punts to be returned for a paltry 25 total yards by opposing teams.
The Cougars kick returners have been solid thus far in 2014, averaging 21.6 yards per return. Washington State has split returns primarily between senior Kristoff Williams and freshman Jamal Morrow. Kristoff Williams is averaging 21.88 yards per return while Morrow is averaging 25.2. Neither has been particularily explosive, each having a long return of 26 yards on the season; however, Morrow showed against Oregon on Saturday that he could be difficult to bring down at times. The Utes will have to be sure to wrap up when tackling to ensure the Cougars don't get their first big return of the season this week.
On punt returns, the Cougars trot out senior Ricky Galvin to do the returning. This is Galvin's first year returning punts and he's averaging 9.8 yards a return. Galvin was a contributor in the kick return game last year, and though he's shifty with good speed, he's never returned any kicks for a touchdown. It would be surprising if he got his first against a special teams unit coached by Utes head coach Kyle Wittingham.
Can anyone stop Kaelin Clay? You better believe Mike Leach and his staff took notice of Clay's Desmond Howard impression in the Big House on Saturday and will scheme a way to take him out of the return game. As mentioned earlier, the Cougars punt coverage has been terrific so far, allowing only 25 return yards total. If the Cougs continue to kick the ball high, allowing their gunners to get to Clay before the ball does, there might not be much opportunity for punt returns. That being said, Clay has shown he has the speed and is elusive enough to make make Wazzu's punt coverage pay if they make even the slightest mistake.
Clay's best shot at a game breaking return might lie in the kickoff return game. The Cougars have actually covered kickoffs pretty well through the first four games, not allowing a return longer than 30 yards. However, WSU has not faced a returner as quick or talented as Kaelin Clay. Another interesting fact that could come into play is WSU's kickoffs result in touchbacks only 25.93% of the time compared to the Utes 82.61%. It will be interesting to see how WSU approaches their kickoffs. Will they let Clay return and trust their coverage? Or will they try and keep it away from from no. 8 with squibs and directional kicks.
Special teams is the great equalizer in football. As we witnessed on Saturday, a key special teams play can change the momentum of the game irreversibly in one team's favor. While Washington State's special teams appear solid, they are at a clear disadvantage against the Utes. Andy Phillips, Tom Hackett, and Kaelin Clay make the Utes special teams arguably the number one special teams unit in the country right now. If the game comes down to field goals, field position, or a big play in the return game, the Utes win.