Well, that game played out exactly how most thought it would.
Despite a sluggish start, the Utes pummeled the visiting Bengals and it was never a question who was the more dominant of the two. In a game that saw Dres Anderson go over the 100-yard mark, Nate Orchard reaching the quarterback 2.5 times and Kaelin Clay taking it the house on his first punt and kick returns of the year, it would be hard for one to pick a star of the game.
If I can (and I can, it’s my column), I’m going to cheat a little bit and make an entire unit the star of the game – the special teams.
Some of you might think I’m crazy, but really, this unit could not have performed much better than it did Thursday night.
Let’s start with the punter from down under, Tom Hackett. The Ray Guy candidate started things off on the right foot when he drilled a 62-yard bomb on his first punt of the season. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the next time he stepped foot on the field, he pinned Idaho State on its own one-yard line. Later in the game, Hackett squeezed the Bengals in between the five-yard line and the endzone by landing a punt on the three.
Hackett also provided one of the game’s more entertaining plays, but not for punting the ball. On fourth down with 17 yards to go deep in Utah’s territory, the coaches decided to gamble and call for a fake punt. Hackett took the pigskin and ran it for the first down, and then some as he ran for 28 yards total. That drive eventually led to a touchdown by running back DaVontae Booker and it was all kept alive by the Utah punter.
Hackett’s partner-in-crime, Andy Phillips, also was obviously improved after having a successful first campaign in Salt Lake City. Phillips has already earned his reputation as a reliable kicker, even from deep distances, but his weakness from 2013 was kickoffs. The opponent would consistently get good field position because of Phillips’ lack of power behind his kickoffs.
However, in the first game of 2014, Phillips registered a touchback on every kickoff that he kicked against Idaho State. If Phillips can remain consistent as he was last season, there is no reason not to believe this guy can be the best kicker in the nation.
Let’s not forget about Kaelin Clay’s debut in a Utah uniform. The coaches and media have been raving about Clay from the beginning and they were absolutely right. This guy can flat out fly on the gridiron. His first ever punt return as Ute was a 46-yard dance that ended in the endzone.
So after being punted away from on his next punt, Utah decided to put Clay in for the kick return in place of Bubba Poole. After receiving the kick in the endzone, Clay decided to bring it out and get some yardage. Not only did he do that, but he streaked his way for six more points.
Watching Clay running circles around Idaho St. was, in my opinion, the most exciting parts of the game.
If Friday night was any indication, Utah fans can rest easy this season. Led by Hackett, Phillips and Clay, this special teams unit is good enough to win some games for the Utes in the Pac-12 and possibly lead them to the postseason.