PULLMAN – It’s hard to find failings in a 59-7 victory.
But following Washington State’s win over UNLV last Saturday, Cougars coach Paul Wulff was able to pinpoint one. And it was an area that didn’t seem ripe for a breakdown.
WSU’s kickoff coverage.
Nitpicking? Possibly, but twice Washington State kicker Andrew Furney missed his spots badly enough that the ball went out of bounds. That results in the offense starting at its 40.
And UNLV’s lone score came on a 95-yard kickoff return by Tim Cornett, a result helped by a lower-than-hoped kickoff from Alex Gauper.
In games where the 2-0 Cougars don’t score 59 points, such things may be decisive. But Wulff isn’t too worried.
“The ball just needs to be placed within reason, and it was the first game,” Wulff said this week. “It just wasn’t this last game. We can get it fixed.”
Wulff’s confidence is born from last season’s results. The Cougars led the nation in kickoff-return defense, yielding just 17 yards on each of their 48 kickoffs.
Senior Nico Grasu was doing the kickoffs then and he put 22.9 percent of them deep enough to force a touchback. This season, only one of WSU’s 21 kickoffs has traveled that far.
“We don’t have a kicker with a big leg right now,” WSU special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer said, “so we’re trying to narrow the field down. The closer we can get the ball to the numbers (on the field), the better off we are.
“When the ball starts going more toward the middle of the field, then I get irritated.”
If your kicker can’t just boom the ball through the end zone – few college kickers can, especially considering they kick from the 30-yard line – the idea on kickoffs is to shrink the field.
That means dictating where the return team has to start – and where the majority of the coverage team heads. If the kicker misses the spot, there can be heck to pay.
This week the payee could be San Diego State’s Colin Lockett, who returned a Cal Poly kickoff 94 yards for a score in the Aztecs’ opener. He is averaging 27.3 yards a return in SDSU’s 2-0 start.
“It’s really hard to defend the whole field,” Wulff said. “It’s spreads your coverage unit real thin.”
The player charged with putting the ball where it supposed to be is Furney. The sophomore, who wrested the place-kicking chores away from Grasu last season, is handling the kickoffs for the first time in college.
“What we do, it’s a difficult thing,” Furney said. “It’s definitely a thing that takes time to get down.
“It’s one of those things where it’s kind of hard to take a year off from completely, and I definitely have big shoes to fill from Nico. There’s a reason we were the (No. 1) cover team in the country last year. Nico did a great job with that.”
Two games in, Furney is still learning.
“Right now, he’s average,” Ungerer said. “He’s got a chance to be OK. He didn’t hit the ball real good last week at all, as far as distance and hang time and location.”
Furney knows that. And he owns it.
“You know, there is really no excuse for what I did on Saturday,” Furney said. “It’s going to take time to get into and I feel like I can do it, but I’ve got to go out and do it.”