The kicking game could be the deciding factor when the Pac-12’s two best defenses — Utah and Washington — face off Saturday night in Seattle.
In a game featuring the Pac-12’s top two scoring defenses, and on a night when more rain is in the forecast, points could be at a premium when Washington hosts No. 13 Utah on Saturday at Husky Stadium.
The Huskies (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12), looking to stay on track to earn bowl eligibility for the sixth year in a row, appear to have their best defense in recent memory. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.9 points), red-zone defense (75 percent) and yards allowed per rushing attempt (3.2).
“They’re probably playing the best defense in the conference,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I don’t think anybody would argue with that.”
Utah @ Washington,
4:30 p.m., Ch. 13
Utah (7-1, 4-1), the Pac-12 South leader, is No. 1 in the conference in rushing defense (113.1 yards per game) and is second in scoring defense (21.4) and turnovers created (19).
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“I don’t think they give you anything,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
In a game where the defenses aren’t expected to yield much and where field position can be paramount, special teams can be a tipping point. And Utah probably has the conference’s most effective special teams.
“You can tell they spend a lot of time (on it),” Petersen said. “Coach Whittingham is very involved. Any time the head coach is involved with those things, it shows the importance to it. And it backs it up on the field.”
The Utes have scored three special-teams touchdowns this season, more than anyone in the conference; both their punter, Tom Hackett, and their kicker, Andy Phillips, are the Pac-12’s most decorated at their position.
“Just a lot of respect for how they do everything,” Petersen said. “(They are) really physical. Their special teams are good. Everybody wants to talk about defense and offense, and this is really the first time special teams have come up. Everybody knows when you think of special teams in the Pac-12, Utah is the one that has been getting it done.”
Hackett, a senior from Australia, last year won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter, the first Pac-12 player to win that. For the third year in a row, Hackett leads the conference in punting average (47.8 yards per punt).
Petersen personally coaches UW’s punt returners, and he’s had to make adjustments this week because of Hackett’s leg. Dante Pettis, UW’s primary return man, will line up about 8 yards deeper than usual.
“We’ve never lined anybody up this deep as a punt returner — never, ever,” Petersen said.
Pettis has one punt return for a touchdown, in the season opener at Boise State, and freshman Chico McClatcher is now the primary kickoff returner, averaging 23.9 yards a return.
“The guy’s fearless,” Petersen said of McClatcher.
But for one game (he didn’t specify which), Petersen has been generally pleased with UW’s special teams. Korey Durkee is third in the Pac-12 in punting average (42.9) and Cameron Van Winkle is 7 for 9 on field-goal attempts.
The Huskies were certainly pleased with the progress their offense made in last week’s 49-3 blowout of Arizona. Utah’s defense poses a much stiffer challenge, though the Huskies believe their defense is up for the fight.
“It’s almost like the mentality of we have to prove it every week before we say, ‘Hey, we’re this or we’re that,’ ” Petersen said.
“And I think that’s probably the best thing our defense has done. They kind of go out there with a prove-it mentality.”