SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s pivotal onside kick in the third quarter of last Thursday’s 30-26 win over Utah State was a calculated risk. The Utes, though, felt the odds were heavily in their favor.
Trailing 23-17 after Andy Phillips connected on a 45-yard field goal, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham gave the green light on an attempt to keep the momentum going.
And it paid off big time. Whittingham considers it the “play of the game” as it ushered in a go-ahead touchdown drive and put the Utes in position to eventually prevail. They followed a USU field goal early in the fourth with two kicks by Phillips in the final 6:38 to defeat the Aggies.
Whittingham credits special teams coordinator Jay Hill for doing a great job of scouting Utah State and the schemes that first-year USU assistant coach Dave Ungerer employed at previous stops. Ungerer has been the special teams coordinator at major programs, including Washington State, Oregon State, Alabama, California and Maryland.
“Jay noticed something on their kickoff return that he thought we could exploit,” said Whittingham, who explained that Hill designed what the Utes call the “middle dribble” onside kick. “We checked them out the first couple of times they kicked off to make sure that what we had seen on tape was still showing up and it was.”
Whittingham noted that Hill was in his ear in the first half to potentially call it. However, the head coach didn’t think the time was right. Things changed in the second half when Hill brought it up again.
“Let’s go,” was Whittingham’s response.
“I said ‘Jay, what are the chances?’ And he said ‘Well, I put it at 80 percent,’” Whittingham recalled. “And that was good enough for me. So we dialed it up and the players executed it almost perfectly.”
The plan was for Phillips to recover the ball. However, Karl Williams wound up getting it.
“The onside kick was something we had executed in practice and we had confidence that we could run it,” Phillips said. “Karl did a great job of recovering the kick.”
Exactly 89 seconds later, Williams added a 2-yard touchdown run to cap a five-play drive that began on the Utah 48.
For Williams, the plays were redemption for an earlier fumble.
“The coaches gave me a second chance and I was able to take advantage,” Williams said.
Utah State coach Matt Wells acknowledged that the onside kick gave the Utes a “big emotional lift.”
Whittingham agreed, noting that the recovery changed the momentum of the game.
And in the end, it helped give the Utes a big shot of confidence following a long offseason after a 5-7 campaign in 2012.
“This win opens the doors for us to have a great season and keep moving forward,” Williams said.
EXTRA POINTS: A win over Weber State Saturday would give Utah its first 2-0 start since 2010. ... Bubba Poole wound up being the Utes’ leading rusher with 47 yards on 12 carries. Starter Kelvin York did not play in the second half because of an undisclosed injury. He finished with 30 yards on 10 carries. ... Punter Tom Hackett pinned three kicks inside the 20. ... Anthony Denham topped the receiving corps with 113 yards on six catches. ... Defensive end Nate Orchard had a team-high seven solo tackles, three stops behind the line of scrimmage and a fumble recovery. Orchard and defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi registered sacks.
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