Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — With two evenly matched teams, which Utah and BYU have been for most of the past two decades, the rivalry games have often been decided in the final minutes, with a play here or there making the difference.
Often, special teams have made the difference in the outcome of several Ute-Cougar games, most recently in 2010 when Utah's Brandon Burton blocked a last-second field-goal try by Mitch Payne to preserve a 17-16 victory.
Who can forget the 1998 game when Utah kicker Ryan Kaneshiro boinked a 32-yard field-goal attempt off the upright, or the 1993 game when Chris Yergensen booted a 55-yarder in the final minute to give the Utes a 34-31 victory?
Sometimes the impact of special teams has been more subtle, such as in last year's 54-10 Utah spanking. Utah special teams coach Jay Hill called it a "huge turning point" when BYU muffed a kickoff, giving the Utes the ball on the 3-yard line in what was a 24-10 game at the time. The resulting touchdown broke the game open and led to the eventual blowout.
This year, with both teams featuring strong defenses and distinctive offensive weapons, Saturday's game could come down to special teams — which team can convert field goals and perform best on punts and kickoffs.
Special teams' blunders may have cost the Utes a win last week in Logan, where the Utes had four "uncharacteristic mistakes" in the loss to Utah State, according to Hill. The biggest was the blocked punt for a touchdown, but there was also an ill-advised punt catch at the 5-yard line, a mix-up on a kickoff return that left the ball on the 4-yard line and a missed field goal, due in part to a poor snap from center.
"Every time we step on the field, we expect to play well in our special teams, and I know BYU takes great pride in their special teams as well," Hill said. "So this will be a great challenge for us and for them. The bottom line is we've got to execute and we can't make those mistakes."
Here's a look at how the two teams stack up so far in their special teams:
While not spectacular, each team is solid in this department.
Utah has an experienced kicker in Coleman Petersen, a walk-on from Brighton High, who exceeded expectations by becoming an honorable mention all-Pac-12 performer, hitting 18 of 25 attempts and 37 of 38 PATs last year.
He got off to a somewhat shaky start this year when he missed a PAT and a short field goal in the opener against Northern Colorado, both off the uprights. However, last week against Utah State he made field goals from 40 and 43 yards and his only miss was from 52 yards after a poor snap.
At BYU, Riley Stephenson has taken over this year for last year's placekicker Justin Sorensen, after the latter couldn't properly recover from off-season back surgery. Stephenson is 4-for-5 on field goals this year, but the longest has been from just 33 yards and he missed a 26-yarder in the Washington State game. He has been perfect in his PATs, making all nine attempts.
Both teams have excellent punters, four-year starters who are, in fact, two of the best in the nation.
For Utah, Sean Sellwood is averaging 52.5 yards per game, which is tops in the nation right now. He tied a school record with five punts of more than 50 yards against Utah State, although coach Kyle Whittingham complained that he sometimes outkicks his coverage. Still, the Utes rank No. 20 in the nation in net punting.
For BYU, Stephenson has averaged 52.0 yards per punt in seven attempts, but is not in national stats because you need to average 3.6 punts per game and he only has 3.5. Otherwise, he would rank No. 2 behind Sellwood. He also has four punts inside the 20 and the Cougars rank No. 7 in the nation in net punting.
Because of the new NCAA rules on kickoffs, which have been moved from the 30 to the 35 with touchbacks now coming out to the 25, teams are using different strategies on kickoffs.
The Utes use junior Nick Marsh, who has a strong leg and is able to kick high. In the first two games, the Ute strategy has mostly been to kick the ball high and inside the goal line and let the coverage team pin the opponent inside the 25.
BYU has used a similar strategy, allowing its two opponents to return 12 kickoffs out of 15, but only for a 20.4-yard average. The Cougars did let one get away from them against Washington State for a 63-yard return, but usually they've pinned opponents inside the 25. Stephenson and Sorensen have split duties on kickoffs so far.
BYU has the edge in this department. JD Falslev has been solid as a punt returner, averaging 17.5 yards on four returns.
On kickoffs, the Cougars have only returned two, but one went for 44 yards and the other for 34.
Utah's punt returns have been negligible with Geoff Norwood and Charles Henderson combining for a mere 15 yards in six returns.
On kick returns, the Utes have had the opportunity for just two, and DeVonte Christopher went for 35 on one and on the other he and Henderson collided, resulting in a negative 1-yard return.
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