As fans saw last week, special teams can be very exciting. With a dynamic return man for Utah in wide receiver Kaelin Clay, special teams could help to decide this game. We will examine the Fresno State specialists to see how they may affect this game.
Last season's kicker, Colin McGuire, just quit the team Wednesday due to family health issues. He played in the loss last week against USC, making one of two PATs. His loss means that freshman walk-on kicker Kody Kroening will handle field goals and PATs. Starting punter Garrett Swanson handles kickoffs and may be called on for long field goals. Having a true freshman walk-on handling kicks could be significant if the game is close, because it is likely he could struggle in a hostile environment taking his first kicks in a game.
Swanson was solid last season punting the ball, averaging 43.1 yards per punt (long of 69) on 53 punts. Swanson did struggle in week one against USC, however, only averaging 35.5 yards per punt (long of 47) on six punts, and only allowed one return. It will be interesting to see if he rebounds to his 2013 form against Utah, or if he again has shorter kicks.
Fresno State struggled to return kickoffs last season, finishing with an 18.6 yards per kick average (109th) with no touchdowns. With what we saw from Utah kicker Andy Phillips last week, I expect Phillips will probably just kick the ball in the endzone for a touchback on most kicks (he had nine touchbacks on nine kickoffs last week).
Fresno State did well returning punts last season, with 11.6 yards per punt return (25th) on 24 returns and two touchdowns, but if you look at the stats, most of the damage was done against FCS Cal Poly (32.5 yards per return and two touchdowns). Both of the touchdown returns, and 21 of the team's 24 returns were handled by now-graduated wide receiver Isaiah Burse. I expect this to be an area where Fresno State regresses this season, especially against an excellent punter like Utah's Tom Hackett.
Kickoff/Punt Return Coverage
McGuire handled kickoffs last season, and the team struggled to contain opposing return men. The Bulldogs finished 104th in the nation last season, allowing 23.4 yards per return and two touchdowns on 60 returns. In 2012, Swanson handled kickoffs (the team allowed 19.5 yards per return), but special teams coordinator Pete Germano wanted to rest his leg last season with Swanson taking over punting duties. Kickoff coverage improved in week one against USC when the Bulldogs only allowed 14.3 yards per return (with a long of 19) on three returns. Swanson did not have any touchbacks in week one against USC, so he may have to rely on directional kicking to keep the ball away from Ute return man Kaelin Clay. While the kick coverage is better this year, this could be an area where Utah does some damage if Clay gets a chance to return a kickoff during the game.
Punt return coverage last season for the Bulldogs was stellar. They only allowed nine punt returns all season, yielding 3.0 yards per return (long of 23) and no touchdowns. Against USC in week one, Fresno State allowed one punt return for 10 yards. This will be an interesting battle to watch, the Fresno State punt return team versus Clay.
Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter and Germano know they will have their hands full on kickoff and punt return coverage with Clay back there. It will be interesting to see if they decide to kick to Clay or if they just try to keep the ball away from him on special teams. Their coaching staff knows for them to pull off the upset, they cannot allow Clay to bust a big kickoff or punt return. I think that special teams could play a very important role in this game.