What is so special about special teams? For some teams, it's an afterthought, for others, it's an exact science. For the Washington Huskies, it's an equal component, another part of the whole, and Coach Ty Willingham has admittedly mixed results so far this season. The good news looking to UCLA is that the Bruins haven't a clear advantage in this aspect of their game, and should Washington win the battle of special teams, they have a chance to tip the balance in their favor Saturday at the edge of Lake Washington.
Last Saturday, you could look at three pivotal plays on special teams that had coach Pat Hill threatening to find some new players after the game.
First, when Clint Stitser missed a 42-yard field goal with 25 seconds left before half time. It looked like the Husky pressure nearly got to that kick, but poor execution doomed the chance to score three points as he shanked the attempt.
Second was botched pooch kick at the end of the third quarter, the score tied at 14-14. The Bulldogs lined up for a 48-yard field goal, but quickly punted the ball to the corner of Washington's end zone. All Fresno had to do was down the ball inside the UW 5-yard line, instead, lost it for a touchback.
That has got to frustrate coach Hill, who said "That is an unbelievable play. We work on special teams more than anything else. We should have had that ball nursed on the one yard line."
The blocked extra point was the third and perhaps most most blatant lapse on special teams for Fresno, but it was one of the bright spots for the Huskies and highlighted an area that has seen improvement, and guarded praise from their head coach.
"Well, we have had a couple of punt returns, even down in Oklahoma when Sean had one of those wonderful long ones, you are always concerned about out kicking your coverage. That has been one of the areas where we let a couple slip through."
Willingham's concern is valid.
On punt return defense, the Huskies need to tighten it up. Currently, Sean Douglas is the national punting leader with an average of 52.13, but opposing teams average 20 yard returns, while the Dawgs manage just 8 yards. Against Oklahoma, a Douglas punt of 80+ yards was wasted when it was returned for almost 50 yards.
"We haven't been able, from our standpoint, to match with a big return, we have been close but we haven't been able to pull it off. I was pleased with our punt coverage this week, because Fresno State is one of those teams that has had a knack for blocking the punt or blocking the kick or whatever."
Most improved aspect of the special teams play?
According to special teams coach Bob Simmons, it's the kicking game that gets most of the credit for improved special team play, but is quick to say that there's a lot of work to do.
"Obviously Sean Douglas has really stepped up in terms of what he brings with our punting," Simmons told us on Tuesday, "and Michael Braunstein has done a good job of being an added weapon - not only kicking off."
To have an effective kicking game you need to keep the opposing team deep in their own territory, and make the field as long as possible for the other guys.
"We need to be better," said coach Simmons straight up, "in terms of over-all execution I thought last week probably was our best week in terms of our average, but for us to be a viable part of this team, kick off return, and punt return we need to really step up our game."
Kick-offs returns look better on the stat sheets. With a team average of 17.4 yards per return, though again, opponents average 25.4 against the Huskies.
"We need to execute." said Simmons, "coverage team needs to go down, make turn overs create some things. Kick-offs, obviously we want to get the ball in good position for our offense, get the ball at the 30 - 35 yard line. Every game, we have goals we want to meet."
It was backup defensive end Caesar Rayford's height advantage that got him added to the field-goal blocking team at earlier in the week. And it was Rayford who got high in the air to deflect an extra-point attempt by the Bulldog's Stitser with time running out for Fresno.
"I knew Daniel (Te'o-Nesheim) blew the guy back, and there was a hole there so I went there and reached up and I felt it hit my hand," Rayford said. "Then I heard the fans screaming and I was like 'wow, did I block this?' "
Putting together the scheme was the UW's defensive coordinator Kent Baer and defensive line coach Randy Hart. The play was inserted when coaches noticed a weakness in Fresno's protection after studying film of their field-goal team. They liked what they saw, and it gets to the essence of how special teams can change everything in less than one minute.
"We just put in a little scheme trying to get some inside pressure," said Baer. "It wasn't anything genius. It was just looking at it and trying to get a block. Anytime you can get one of those, that's huge. Those can be game-changers, momentum-changers."
Cornerback Roy Lewis agreed as he spoke to the press shortly after the UW victory, telling everyone his team's fortune's had changed course.
"I think the momentum is starting to roll now." as though the Dawgs had just officially announced their bus to the Rose Bowl was all fueled up in the parking lot with the motor running.
"This is the type of win that should catapult us."
Lewis is the team leader on kick returns averaging 18.9 yards.
Asked by one of the beat reporters why and if is he is taking a risk using one of his most talented, and one of the few healthy and experienced cornerbacks on the depth chart, Willingham said Lewis wanted to and was "pretty good" at it.
Even coach Willingham told both the players and the press his goal for the team is winning the Pac-10 conference title this year.
Is this an impossible dream? The talk of a crazy person?
Well, all goals begin with a step, and three steps in, the Huskies still have hope, confidence, two wins and each week they improve.
Isn't that special?