On paper, Utah State’s football team hasn’t really had a clear-cut advantage over any of its opponents during the abbreviated 2020 campaign, but that will change in its season finale.
Notwithstanding their struggles this fall, the Aggies have been rock solid in every special teams unit. The same can not be said for Colorado State, which has essentially lost two games — the Rams have only played four times — because of special teams blunders.
This is something USU (1-5) hopes to take advantage of when it travels to Fort Collins to square off against CSU (1-3) in the finale for both programs this season. Opening kickoff from Canvas Stadium is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“Special teams wise, man ... we’ve got some competitors on this team, so whether a team is good or bad on special teams, I don’t think our kids look at it that way,” USU interim head coach Frank Maile said during Monday’s press conference. “They just look at (it as) another opportunity just to pound somebody and get after them. We continue to get better on special teams.”
Colorado State is coming off a 29-17 road loss to San Diego State last Saturday. It was the Rams’ first game since Nov. 12 due to COVID-19 cancellations. The Rams finished with 265 yards of total offense in that game and limited the Aztecs to 247, but the hosts were able to take control by returning a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the second quarter.
It was the season time in ’20 the Rams have allowed multiple special teams touchdowns in a game. In its 52-21 setback to Boise State in Nov. 12, CSU completely fell apart on special teams. After all, the Broncos blocked two punts and a field goal, and all three of those plays resulted in immediate TDs — two in the first quarter. Arguably the worst one was a short field goal attempt that was stuffed and returned 91 yards to the house.
The Aggies have proven they can get after opposing punters and kickers this season as Kina Maile partially blocked a New Mexico punt, and Hale Motu’apuaka batted away a San Diego State field goal.
Motu’apuaka, a defensive lineman, has been dealing with some nerve damage in his neck this season, but said in Monday’s press conference he’s healthier than he’s been since the very beginning of the season.
The Rams also managed to outgain the Broncos in that Mountain West showdown (315-291), but the damage had already been inflicted thanks to CSU’s woes on special teams. Boise State scored a defensive touchdown in that contest, to boot.
The bad news for CSU is USU All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver will likely play this week. Scarver missed last Thursday’s 35-7 Senior Night loss to Air Force after testing positive with COVID-19, but Maile said “I anticipate that he’s going to play this week.”
Scarver has brought back six kickoffs for TDs during his collegiate career, including one in the four games he’s played this fall. The Las Vegas native has averaged 31.9 yards on his 10 returns in ’20.
USU’s other starting kickoff returner, running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole, also did not play against the Falcons. Henry-Cole’s presence was definitely missed offensively and on special teams. The Utah graduate transfer helped spring Scarver’s explosive kickoff return against Fresno State with a bone-jarring block.
Maile is not as confident Henry-Cole will be available for Saturday’s game.
“DHC, on the other hand, I think is still down (with COVID) and so he’s going to be a day-to-day question mark, and so we’ll evaluate him every day moving forward,” Maile said.
Unlike the Rams, the Aggies haven’t made any glaring mistakes with their special teams coverage units this year. Case in point: USU has allowed a measly 13 yards on nine punt returns and an average of 17.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns. The longest kickoff return the Aggies have yielded is a 26-yarder.
USU owns a significant advantage over CSU in both of those categories — the Rams have allowed 24.8 yards per kickoff return and 15.3 per punt return —plus net punting. CSU’s Ryan Stonehouse is one of the top punters nationally, but has a net average of 32.1 because of the aforementioned blocks and one touchback.
Meanwhile, the Aggies rank third in the Mountain West with a strong net punt average of 40.4, just 0.2 yards out of the No. 2 spot. True freshman punter Stephen Kotsanlee has done an outstanding job for USU this fall as 17 of his 37 punts have been downed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line and none of them have resulted in touchbacks.
The Aggies have also done a solid job in ’20 of protecting Kotsanlee and their kickers. None of Kotsanlee’s punts have been blocked, and only one kick — an extra point attempt by Connor Coles — has been blocked. Additionally, Coles has split the uprights on all three of his field goal attempts, while the Rams are 4 of 7.
Indeed, the Aggies have thoroughly outplayed the Rams on special teams this season, and hope that advantage will pay off Saturday.
“We’ve got to take advantage of that,” Maile said. “(Special teams are) always the key every single week as far as setting up the field position for our defense and our defense. And so because everybody plays a role in that on offense and defense, it’s probably the most important of the three phrases right now is setting up field position and creating explosive plays on special teams, especially if (your opponent is) struggling.”
BAD NEWS FOR MW
The Mountain West received some bad news Monday when it was announced the inaugural Los Angeles Bowl will not be played this year. The bowl was supposed to pit the MW champion against a team from the Pac-12 Conference.
Another Mountain West bowl tie-in, the Hawaii Bowl, was canceled earlier this season. With the latest news, the league is down to four guaranteed bowl tie-ins in ’20 — Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, New Mexico Bowl, NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl and Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl. This year’s New Mexico Bowl will be contested in Frisco, Texas.