Hackett might just be the real MVP for Utah


Courtesy by Kevin Hsu

Courtesy by Kevin Hsu
Courtesy by Kevin Hsu

There is a hashtag Utah punter Tom Hackett often uses on Twitter: “#puntersarepeopletoo.” In Hackett’s case, he is far more than just a person ­— in fact, he may just be the Utes’ MVP.
During Utah’s 20-17 double overtime victory over Stanford, Hackett was up to his old tricks. Hackett’s stat line: nine punts, six inside the 20 and an average of 44.7 yards per kick. Impressive, yes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
It’s not a hidden fact that the Ute offense is far from a prolific group. Utah scored just seven points in regulation and rarely crossed midfield, but even with the offense failing to drive, the Utes still dominated the field position battle.
Stanford’s average starting position was on its 18-yard line, while the Utes averaged starting on their 32-yard line. In a defensive battle, that difference is huge, especially considering Utah’s offensive strategy.
“We’re doing whatever we gotta do,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re just trying to protect the football first and foremost, which is what we did. Zero turnovers. It’s huge in a game like this.”
By taking the conservative route on offense, the Utes put a major load on Hackett’s shoulders. They knew they weren’t gong to light the scoreboard on fire, so they trusted their punter to create long fields for Stanford. Utah didn’t want to risk turnovers, so instead, it put its fate on Hackett’s foot.
The Australian native also had the responsibility of keeping Stanford’s electric punt returner Ty Montgomery in check. A season ago, the Utes saw firsthand what Montgomery could do in the return game, as he took a kick-off back for a touchdown in Utah’s 2013 upset win over the Cardinal.
There weren’t many kick-offs to return, but there were plenty of punts.
“That was our plan going in, try to keep it out of [Montgomery’s] hands, both on the kickoff game and the punt game,” Whittingham said. “[Hackett] kicked the ball exceptionally well. Didn’t allow Montgomery, who is a heck of a player, to ever get on track in punt return game because he kept the ball away from him.”
To do so, Hackett used a mix of punt types, including his typical roll-out Aussie football cross-field kick and also the usual NFL pro-style kick. He used them in different situations, and both were effective.
Montgomery finished the game with just one return, and it went for only a single yard. One such punt illustrated just how effective Hackett was on the afternoon. On the punt, Montgomery fair caught the ball inside the 5-yard line, more-or-less surrendering to Hackett’s greatness.
Hackett wasn’t perfect on the afternoon, but he was pretty close. On one punt, Hackett landed the ball about a half-yard into the end zone for a touchback, before it back spun out.
“We had the one just hit about a half a yard in the end zone. I know he wishes he had back that went for touchback. He hates touchbacks,” Whittingham said.
Hackett’s big game not only allowed the Utah offense to play conservative but also gave the Ute defense some needed breathing room. Stanford was able to find some holes in the Utah rush defense and finished with 190 yards on the ground. With the extra space from Hackett, the defense was able to give up some big rushing plays, without giving up points.
In the overtime sessions, when Hackett was removed from the game, was when the Utah offense stepped up, delivering two touchdowns. Big plays were needed because their punter, and potential MVP, could no longer help them.
“We’re not very prolific right now on offense. We’re not putting up huge numbers. But I believe we’re playing smart and we’re playing disciplined. And tonight, we had just enough,” Whittingham said.
It was “just enough” because of Hackett.
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