Tucson, Ariz. • Savon Scarver’s 96-yard kickoff return for a Utah State touchdown early in Friday’s game was just the kind of game-changing play that USU’s special teams made all season on the way to the Arizona Bowl.
The good feelings didn’t last long, in this case. USU allowed New Mexico State’s Jason Huntley to go 100 yards with the next kickoff, another momentum swing that a characterized a wild game of special-team adventures in NMSU’s 26-20 overtime victory.
Mark Tommerdahl, who coaches USU’s special teams, was the state of Utah’s only nominee for the Broyles Award, given to the country’s top FBS assistant coach of the year. Tommerdahl’s group produced mixed results Friday in a showing that USU coach Matt Wells labeled “a little bit unlike our special teams.”
USU punter Aaron Dalton was outstanding, pinning NMSU inside the 10-yard line three times during the third quarter. His work eventually enabled the USU offense to capitalize with a go-ahead touchdown.
But kicker Dominik Eberle made only 2 of 6 field-goal attempts, after going 16 of 18 during the regular season and becoming a Lou Groza Award finalist. Eberle’s last try, a 29-yarder in overtime, hit the right upright and bounced away.
That kick can’t be blamed for USU’s loss, considering NMSU’s Larry Rose III ran for the winning touchdown on his team’s OT possession. Yet if Eberle had made any of his other kicks that missed from 44, 49 and 48 yards, USU may have won in regulation.
“In a tight game, I thought he would win the game,” Wells said.
USU also failed on a fake-punt play in the first half and allowed NMSU to succeed on a similar play in the second half. USU’s Jacoby Wildman was stopped for a 2-yard loss (and lost a fumble) on a fourth-down play, while NMSU’s Izaiah Loftie ran for 9 yards on fourth-and-5. In each case, USU’s defense responded with an interception.
If NMSU had lost, a special-teams play would have been a big reason. Payton Theisler’s shanked punt that went only 13 yards set up USU for a 24-yard touchdown drive and a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter.