SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah has stood out for the quality of its special teams play, especially since joining the Pac-12, USC has also built up that aspect of its program thanks to a guy with an interesting Utah connection.
USC's special teams and tight ends coach is John Baxter, former Utah and Weber State coach Ron McBride’s father-in-law.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it takes a commitment by coaches and players to make that aspect of the game something on which a team can rely.
“It’s very important,” he said of special teams. “We’ve been good on special teams, paid a lot of attention to it for a lot of years. Our players have bought into it. We preach it. I think we’ve won a bunch of games over the years because of special teams. It’s something that will always be important to us.” While Utah boasts one of the best punters in the country in 2016 Ray Guy Award Winner Mitch Wishnowsky, who is currently leading the nation in net punting (44.75 yards).
Utah’s placekicker Matt Gay leads the nation in field goals made with 16, and in fact, he’s only missed one attempt this season.
Punt returning has been reliable with an average of 15.75 yards per return, which is fourth in the conference and 11th in the country.
The unit’s Achilles' heel has been snapping, which, unfortunately, is what both Wishnowsky and Gay rely upon for success. Whittingham said they will spend “day and night” working to eradicate the issues that have plagued them this season.
Interestingly, It was announced this week that a long snapper from California, Jac Casasante has committed to Utah for the 2018 season.
Utah and USC rely on different defensive schemes, but there is a lot about the Trojans that mirrors what Utah offers in its program.
“Yeah, I think there are some similarities,” Whittingham said. “Coach (Clancy) Pendergast, their D-coordinator, he’s one of the top D-coordinators in the country,” Whittingham said. “I have a lot of respect for him. I think there are some philosophical similarities.”
Utah, USC and Stanford are tied at the top of the conference for interceptions with nine each. USC has the most sacks of those three with 18, while Utah has 11 and Stanford has 15.
RALLY FROM TOUGH LOSS
A number of Utah players were visibly demoralized after Utah’s 23-20 loss to Stanford. But in the days after the loss, most players were talking about shaking off frustration and disappointment and redeeming themselves by making a little history by winning at the Coliseum for the first time in 101 years.
“We’ve got a whole season,” said wide receiver Darren Carrington. “This is just one game. It was a wake-up call for us. This week we can’t take any steps back because it’s SC and we’re both in a fight for first place in the South (division). It’s still early.”