WVU’s Toughest On-Field Bowl Challenge? Special Teams
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital again has the unenviable task of preparing for a game without two of his primary weapons, but special teams assistant Mark Scott’s task against Utah might be even tougher. While Spavital has to craft a game plan in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl without the services of Will Grier and Justin Crawford, it’s the players on the field for the Utes that will give Scott headaches. Punter Mitch Wisnowsky won the Ray Guy Award on the strength of a 44.24 yards per kick average, but it wasn’t just distance (even though he had 11 of 50-plus yards) that makes him a weapon. He placed 16 boots inside the 20-yard line against just three touchbacks, and can kick in a variety of ways. From conventional to rollout to full-on rugby kick, Wisnowsky has flipped the field, pinned opponents deep and generally given Utah huge field advantage. The Utes held a nearly five-yard advantage in net punt return stats, and allowed just six punts to be returned.
“All the different types of kicks and where they can place the ball makes our job in the return game a lot more difficult,” Scott said as he assessed the game plan he is formulating. “That’s what we are seeing with these Australian punters — they can kick the ball in so many different ways.”
WVU is hoping to get some of that benefit next year when Angus Davies comes to West Virginia from Down Under, but for now it will have to battle Wisnowsky, a native of Perth, with fundamentals.
A lot of different factors go into [the battle for field position], Scott said of trying to neutralize Utah’s advantages. “We have to be able to place the ball with our kickoff and punt, get proper hang time, and get the kick location to match up with what we are doing coverage wise. Then [the cover team] has to locate the ball, get off blocks and get down to surround their return guys.”
That has been tough at times this year for WVU. Less than effective placement, the occasional shank and missed tackles have hurt field position, so a good deal of time has been spent in bowl preparation on these items. A total turnaround might not be expected, but the Mountaineers must play better in this play phase to keep from being bottled up in its own end of the field.
That’s just part of the action, though. There’s also Utah’s return game, which has tallied more than a first down (10.4 yards) on 24 runbacks.
They have 23 or 24 returned punts, so it doesn’t matter if guys are around him, he wants the ball in his hands, Scott said of Boobie Hobbs, who owns 23 of those returns with a long of 48. I think teams are able to identify how impactful having a returner that can make plays is. They have 16 kickoff returns, so they have shown five or six things. We have to take care of us, get off blocks and get the guy down.”
Scott also has to reach for the Tylenol when contemplating the Utes’ kickoff team. That’s not always viewed as an offensive weapon, but Wisnowsky has 44 touchbacks among his 63 kickoffs. That could negate WVU’s Marcus Simms, who led the Big 12 in all-purpose yardage and has the speed to split coverage units. The best way to do that is no return at all, and it’s possible that Simms might not get the chance to show his talent in this play phase.
WVU has faced excellent special teams players and units through the year, starting, as Scott points out, with Virginia Tech. However, Utah might be the best overall, from top to bottom, and those groups are a big part of their success. Scott, head coach Dana Holgorsen and every special teamer will likely have to come up with their best performance of the year to offset them.