Punts don’t usually do that.
But off Joel Whitford’s right foot — in his debut as the University of Washington punter Friday night against Rutgers — footballs were spinning wildly at High Point Solutions Stadium.
A couple spiraled forward, like punts normally do. One hit the turf and kicked back. Another one did not appear to have any spin at all, hit and kicked sideways, just missing a touchback.
Whatever the Australia native does, however he does it, Huskies coach Chris Petersen wants him to continue to do it.
“Give him a chance, and he has got a unique (skill) where he can really place the ball,” Petersen said. “It usually will check up and not roll into the end zone.”
Special teams is what saved the day for the Huskies in their 30-14 win, or at least gave them the boost to overcome an early deficit.
Whitford’s first eye-opening play came early in the second quarter after the UW’s drive stalled at Rutgers’ 43-yard line.
He boomed a ball straight along the hash that kicked back into the waiting arms of redshirt freshman Byron Murphy, the gunner on the play who downed it near the goal line.
“It doesn’t matter which gunner we put out there –— they are all super athletic,” Whitford said. “They really have it dialed in there, and pretty quick to sense the returner was leaving it (alone). I was just happy it didn’t go for a touchback.”
The second show of punting precision set up the Huskies’ game-changing score.
With more than six minutes remaining, another Huskies’ march stalled past midfield, this time at the Scarlet Knights’ 40.
Whitford angled his next punt right. Murphy tracked it all the way, even after the ball scooted right once it reached the ground.
“There were some knuckleballs today that might not have been on purpose,” Whitford said. “If the result is good, I will claim that I meant it.”
Murphy downed it at the 2-yard line, Rutgers went three-and-out from deep in its own end, and UW punt returner Dante Pettis took one back 61 yards for a touchdowns that gave the Huskies the lead for good.
It has been an interesting nine months for Whitford, a 6-foot-3, 224-pound sophomore. He played at Santa Barbara City College two years ago, replacing fellow Australian Mitch Wishnowsky, the reigning Ray Guy Award winner from Utah.
Opponents managed just nine punt returns on 47 punts in junior college.
Whitford transferred to UW in January and said he got through the “tough, cold winter” in Seattle.
“That was foreign to me,” he said.
Once fall camp rolled around, it was clear he was going to take over the starting punting duties once senior Tristan Vizcaino became the full-time placekicker.
And on Friday, Whitford passed his first UW test with flying colors.
“It was a tough game, but we got through it,” Whitford said.