SALT LAKE CITY — In these opening weeks of the 2018 season, “Special Teams U” has been anything but.
Through two games, mistakes have plagued Utah's special teams. As examples, senior placekicker Matt Gay has missed three of his six field goal attempts, with two blocked by Weber State and Northern Illinois, while the punt return team, headed by sophomore sensation Britain Covey, has suffered from a pair of fumbles.
In both punt return instances, the Utes failed to recover the loose ball after watching it bounce off an unbeknownst player of their own.
Though none of these mistakes proved fatal against their first two opponents, the same cannot be said if any is repeated against Washington, ranked 10th in the country, on Saturday. Given that, the Utes will look to avoid any situational-football errors that could potentially surrender field position, points or, worst of all, the game itself.
On Monday, speaking from his weekly platform, coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the special team’s subpar outings, and vowed to have their recent issues cleaned up ahead of the first conference matchup of the season.
“Yes, our special teams was disappointing again — for the second week in a row,” he said. “I mean it’s ironic, the same exact issues — another blocked field goal and a punt that hit one of our return guys which was recovered by our opponent. So, the two exact things that happened in game one happened in game two, which is something that has got to be corrected and it will be.”
While Whittingham acknowledged problems in execution, he mainly attributed the outcomes to a combination of bad luck and less-than-ideal playing conditions.
“Those of you that were there know the wind was pretty strong that evening (against Northern Illinois) and it was swirling around," Whittingham said. "He (Gay) tried to kick it a little lower to get more of a piercing effect under the wind but he kicked it too low and unfortunately the guy blocked it.
“The first one was blocked two weeks ago and that was a breakdown of protection — we had penetration,” Whittingham continued. “And last week was just a low kick."
Utah has not had a field goal attempt blocked since 2012, and Whittingham is not ready to make it a trend.
For a team that prides itself on sound special teams play, the recent mistakes appear outside of character. Consider: in 2017, Gay, the former Utah Valley University soccer player, missed only four of 34 attempts on the season, and converted his first 14 flights en route to becoming Utah's first Lou Groza award winner, and second nominee following Louie Sakoda (2008).
Meanwhile, in recent years, Utah’s punt return team has also been among the nation’s best. Over the last four seasons, the group has finished inside the Top 40 three times, with averages of 10.39 (2017), 10.83 (2015) and 13.79 (2014) yards per punt return. They’ve also returned six punts for touchdowns over that span.
So heading into this weekend’s tilt, suffice it to say the Utes coaching staff won't mind if their normally formidable group returned another, and in the process, saw “Special Teams U” return to form.
“We have to get it corrected because that’s usually an advantage for us — week in and week out — our special teams,” Whittingham said, “but it hasn’t been the case the first two weeks.”
Dillon Anderson is studying literary journalism as a student at the University of Utah. You can follow him on Twitter @DillonDanderson.