It was a mixed bag for the Aggies offensively and defensively in their last game, but ultimately the negatives outweighed the positives in a 35-16 loss to Fresno State on Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium.
That was not the case for Utah State’s special teams units, which excelled in last Saturday’s Homecoming game and have seemingly improved in every contest. All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver and punter Stephen Kotsanlee highlighted USU’s strong performance on special teams against FSU.
“Special teams has been playing amazing all season,” Scarver said during Monday’s press conference. “... Everybody has been making plays because, you know, with the Aggies, that’s what we thrive at is on special teams. You know, we play hard on every (special teams unit).”
Scarver extended his own school record with his sixth career kickoff return for a touchdown. The senior received a dynamic block from running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole, accelerated through the resulting hole and used his blazing speed to go 94 yards to the house and give the Aggies a 13-7 lead with 4:33 remaining in the first quarter.
“Oh yeah, DHC had an amazing block, a pancake is what we call it,” Scarver said. “You know, DHC was telling me before the play just ‘to follow me, man, just trust me.’ And I was like, ‘all right, I trust you,’ and I trust all of those dudes in our (kickoff return) unit. But DHC’s block, it was amazing. He knocked (that guy) right out of the hole and it opened it up for me, and I just ran. As soon as I saw that seam, I just hit it as quick as I could.”
The Las Vegas native only needs to return one more kickoff for a TD to match the Mountain West and NCAA record of seven. Former San Diego State star Rashaad Penny and three others share the top spot in NCAA history.
“I takes 10 dudes to do their jobs to get me in the end zone,” said Scarver, who looks up to former NFL standout kickoff returners Devin Hester, Tavon Austin and Deion Sanders. “All of those dudes work their tails off to get me in the end zone. ... You know, it was a great feeling to get in the end zone with my team and my boys, and see a smile on everybody’s face. You know, they work hard for (those moments) ... so I’m glad it finally paid off.”
Fresno State gave Scarver the opportunity to bring back four other kickoffs and he averaged an impressive 37.8 on his five returns. No. 11 is averaging 32.3 yards on his nine returns this season.
Is Scarver surprised opponents continue to give him chances to make game-changing special teams plays?
“I’m not really surprised because I feel like it’s a respect thing,” he said. “They don’t respect me back there enough yet, so I enjoy them giving me chances just to make them respect me. I would love for them to keep kicking me the ball.”
Likewise, Kotsanlee’s play also stood out against the Bulldogs. The true freshman struggled a bit in USU’s season opener at Boise State as he only averaged 34.3 yards on seven punts, but he’s been rock solid ever since.
“Just overall comfort, I believe,” Kotsanlee said when asked about the key to his improvement. “I’m finding my spot out there. Obviously, coming into a whole new environment, it’s pretty daunting, but to sort of have the experience now ... I can set my foot in and really lock down, and I’m definitely feeling that extra comfort of being out there now.”
Kotsanlee punted the ball eight times last Saturday and placed three of them inside the FSU 20-yard line, including two inside the 5. The native of Melbourne, Australia, also booted a lovely 63-yarder out of his own end zone in the opening half to flip the field position.
On the season, 12 of Kotsanlee’s 32 punts have been downed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. No. 63 is now averaging 40.3 yards a punt and none of them have been blocked.
“I take plenty of pride in that,” Kotsanlee said of flipping field position. “Again, that’s me doing my part for the team. Hopefully, it’s pinning them inside the 20, pinning them as deep as I can to help out the defense. The defense does their job to help out the offense and it’s a continuous wheel, so it’s just myself, my special teams unit, we’re just doing our part and it’s a great feeling, that’s for sure.”
Kotsanlee grew up playing Australian rules football and didn’t transition to American football until two years ago. His older brother is a big NFL fan and found out about an academy, Prokick Australia, that trains ex-Australian rules players to punt at the collegiate level. At the urging of his brother, Kotsanlee decided “why not, I’ll have a crack (at it).”
“From there it was just continuous training week in and week out, getting prepared for college until one day I got my film sent here to Utah State, which they seemed to like,” Kotsanlee said. “And next thing you know, here (last) September, I’m here with my little brother in Logan watching (USU) play Stony Brook last season, and that was absolutely amazing.”
Kotsanlee fledged his commitment to the Aggies a few months after the Stony Brook game and the rest is history.
“(Things have) gone very quick and it’s been quite the journey, but I’m still living it up and absolutely loving being here,” he said.
Another Aggie who contributed on special teams last Saturday was kicker Connor Coles, who was successful on a 38-yard field goal in the second quarter. The Bulldogs did block Coles’ first extra point attempt.
USU has done very well in kickoff and punt coverage all season long, and that trend continued against FSU, which lost four yards on its two punt returns and only averaged 18.0 yards on its three kickoff returns. The Aggies have allowed a measly seven yards on seven punt returns this fall, and 18.75 yards on eight kickoff returns.