Jockeying for field position

By and

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham called his team’s 44-6 win over UCLA “one of the biggest, if not the biggest” home victories he’s ever seen. Whittingham wasn’t simply talking about the score or the magnitude of the victory.

The U football team dominated the Bruins in every facet of the game, but what best sums up the Utes’ superiority on Saturday was the way Utah’s special teams lived up to their name — particularly the “special” part.

“All game, we did win the field position (battle),” Whittingham said. “That’s great special teams. In a word: Louie Sakoda — well, two words.”

With the Utes desperate for a win to lift their spirits, “Sweet” Louie Sakoda picked a great time to shine for his team.

Of the five punts Sakoda was responsible for, none were returned. Four of Sakoda’s punts resulted in UCLA drives that started behind their own 15-yard line. Sakoda’s longest punt — good for 49 yards — pinned UCLA at their own 3-yard line and marks the fifth time the Utes’ punter/kicker combo has handcuffed an opponent inside the 5-yard line this season. Sakoda also added three long-range field goals on top of his brilliant punting performance. All three kicks were within a few feet of the 45-yard range. Sakoda’s 47-yard boot in the third quarter set a new career high for the Ray Guy (punter) and Lou Groza (kicker) award candidate.

“Louie Sakoda is a great weapon,” Whittingham said.

But it wasn’t just Louie Sakoda that helped the Utes limit UCLA’s average starting field position to the Bruins’ own 23-yard line.

Of Ben Vroman’s nine kickoffs, two went for touchbacks. Utah’s special teams coverage helped limit Matt Slater to just 114 total kick return yards on the remaining six attempts — which were good for just 19 yards per return.

To further put the Bruins paltry kick return total in perspective, the Utes nearly matched the Bruins total with 102 yards of their own in half the attempts. After Brice McCain returned the opening kickoff 16 yards to the Utes’ 18-yard line, the junior gave Utah two huge shots in the arm by returning the ball 40 and 46 yards, respectively, directly following UCLA’s only two scores of the game.

“The field position game shows up in special teams more so than any other factor in terms of chunks of yards won or lost,” Whittingham said. “We had a much better day today in special teams.”

Besides knocking the wind out of UCLA by constantly leaving the Bruins with insurmountable field position, Utah’s special teams and defensive unit helped the Utes average the start of their drives from their own 47-yard line. With only half the field to work with for most of the game, it’s clear how the Utes were able to put up 44 points on the No. 11 team in the country, while allowing only six on the other side of the ball.

“We spend ‘X’ amount of time on special teams every week,” Whittingham said. “We try and have our best athletes back there. Today it was just a matter of the young guys starting to understand the effort required.”

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Lennie Mahler