WSU Cougars

WSU taking a more anything-goes philosophy on special teams

Washington State kicker Erik Powell has added punting to his repertoire, and lined up in a two punter formation last week against Boise State.
Washington State kicker Erik Powell has added punting to his repertoire, and lined up in a two punter formation last week against Boise State. AP

The wackiest single moment in Washington State’s wacky triple-overtime win over Boise State came when Erik Powell’s high-arching punt landed on the back of a Boise State player’s helmet, and the Cougars recovered the ball to fuel their comeback from a 21-point deficit.

It’s really hard to beat that one. But it wasn’t the Cougars’ most unusual punt of the game.

Lost in Wazzu’s 47-44 triumph Saturday night was a highly unorthodox punt formation the Cougars unveiled in the second quarter.

They initially lined up two punters: Powell on the left and Kyle Sweet beside him. Then Powell rolled out to join the coverage team and Sweet took the snap, launching a more or less routine rugby punt. It traveled 40 yards and was returned 6.

But the oddness of the formation wasn’t lost on the Broncos, two of whom collided as they tried to figure out what the Cougars were up to.

That moment of unpredictability was the whole point of the ploy for WSU special-teams coordinator Eric Mele, who is making use of his players’ diverse skills and bringing to special teams a touch of the anything-goes philosophy that head coach Mike Leach brings to his Air Raid offense.

The No. 21 Cougars (2-0) open their Pac-12 schedule Saturday (2:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at Martin Stadium against Oregon State (1-2).

The idea for the two-punter formation came from WSU running-backs coach Jim Mastro. Like other WSU coaches, Mastro had been impressed by an experiment by Mele late last season, when he began doling out punting reps to Powell, whose day job is place-kicking. In the Holiday Bowl, Powell punted six times for a 45.5-yard average.

Two facts about Powell jogged Mastro’s imagination: He’s left-footed and he’s capable not only of conventional punts but the rugby variety.

The Cougars already had a right-footed rugby punter, Sweet. So why not insert both of them into punt formation on occasion, leaving opponents wondering which way the punt was coming? It would prevent them from setting up a return, and would add to the perplexing variables afoot whenever a team tries to field a punt that, rather than sailing down the middle, skitters along the periphery.

“Once we saw how it affects defenses, we were like, ‘This is good stuff,’ ” Mastro said. “You have to take advantage of having a lefty, because you don’t find lefties too much. A lefty who can rugby-punt is huge.”

One thing that made the ploy more credible to coaches was the punters’ athleticism. Sweet is one of the team’s best inside receivers, and Powell boasts outstanding speed and strength for a kicker.

“They can tackle – you don’t lose anything,” Mastro said. “And you gain a huge advantage schematically, because now you can rugby either way and not determine it until the snap.”

A two-punter formation isn’t unprecedented in college football. An NAIA school, William Penn, used it for a spell prior to this season.

But it’s rare. Conference USA has a reputation for innovative punt schemes, but former Washington State coach Mike Price, who headed a member of that league, Texas-El Paso, for nine years until 2012, said Wednesday he had never seen a two-punter formation before.

“It’s a great idea, though,” Price said.

Mastro and Mele, too, said they’ve never seen such an alignment, so Mele was working from scratch when he cooked up the specifics, taking care to incorporate the ploy into the Cougars’ normal punt-coverage schemes. He didn’t want it to seem, to his players, like a trick play.

The Cougars rehearsed it surreptitiously on occasion during preseason workouts, intending to deploy it at the first viable opportunity, which turned out to be a Game 2.

“I definitely think it’s a little stroke of genius,” Sweet said. “We’ve got the best special-teams coordinator in the Pac-12 for sure, maybe the country. I think he definitely knows how to mess with defenses and throw something at them that they haven’t seen before.”

Mele, in his third full season directing WSU’s increasingly effective special units, has moved away from the notion that a team needs to foreground one punter. A few weeks ago he restored a roster spot to Mitchell Cox, a fourth-year Cougar who’d been toiling as a student assistant for the team during preseason camp. Now he’s the designated short-field punter, having pinned opponents on the 9- and 11-yard lines on his two kicks so far.

“It’s like anything else, on offense or defense – you want to get your best players on the field,” Mele said this week.

Of course, the Cougar punt that’s overshadowing them all is the Powell punt that struck Reid Harrison-Ducros’ helmet – the punter’s equivalent of a 9-iron that bounces into the hole – and resuscitated a Cougar drive that would eventually tie the score 31-31 with less than two minutes remaining.

It had been a last-minute decision to use a conventional Powell punt in that situation. Mele told him, “Just kick it as high as you can,” hoping the spin a left-footed punter imparts would affect the ball’s descent and catch the returner off-guard.

“But it worked out even better than expected,” Mele said.

Harrison-Ducros was probably trying to clear space for the returner at the time, but WSU’s Keith Harrington forced him back inside. The Boise State sophomore was caught out of position and the ball smacked him in the back of the helmet. Dillon Sherman, an obscure second-year freshman linebacker for the Cougars who has recently redirected his diligence to special teams, recovered the fumble at the 24.

A stroke of incredible luck, yes.

On the other hand, the unpredictability of that entire sequence is exactly what Mele and the Cougars are after.