Strength vs. strength: Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky vs. Washington return star Dante Pettis

Two of college football’s top special teams weapons face off again

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Washington Huskies wide receiver Dante Pettis (8) runs the punt back for a 58-yard touchdown. University of Washington Huskies defeated University of Utah Utes 31-24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, October 29, 2016.

On an unseasonably warm mid-November afternoon, Mitch Wishnowsky jogged toward the practice fields behind the Eccles Football Center with a select few special teams associates and did what you’d expect the reigning Ray Guy Award winner to do.

Enjoying the last hour of sunlight, the Aussie punter, comfortably in a tank top, let loose.

Punt after punt after punt.

No one does it better.

But even the best has to put in overtime. Especially when the man soon to be lining up about 50 yards away has earned the distinction of best-ever. Utah’s trip to Washington this weekend to take on the No. 16 Huskies pits the most effective punter in college football in Wishnowsky against Washington’s Dante Pettis, who recently set the NCAA record for career punt returns for touchdown with nine.

Utah at No. 16 Washington<br>When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST<br>TV • ESPN

Leaning down against the fence outside Utah’s facility after practice, Wishnowsky said Pettis is easily the most-talented returner he’s ever had to scheme for.

“I’ve seen first-hand how good he is,” Utah’s punter said. “He’s phenomenal.”

It was a fourth-quarter punt return by Pettis at Rice-Eccles Stadium that thwarted Utah’s hopes of upsetting then-No. 4 Washington last fall. Wishnowsky had kept the 6-foot-1 senior bottled up for much of the afternoon, but all he needs is one shot. One shot to take it to the house.

Pettis did, going 58 yards with 3:25 left in the game that day.

“You sort of learn from it at the time,” Wishnowsky said, “and then you just forget about it. I gave him a little too much space, and that’s all he needs. So you just got to hang it up there. Make sure he gets no space, make sure I have coverage down there, or else he’s going to sort of punish you.”

Pettis’ 64-yard return against Oregon on Nov. 5 broke the record of eight, previously held by Texas Tech’s Wes Welker and Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins. It was Pettis’ fourth punt return of 2017.

“First of all, he’s got tremendous quickness and the ability to make you miss,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “All good punt returners are able to make X amount of guys miss on a return. Very seldom is it all blocked up and you just have a clear path to the end zone.”

Whittingham lauded Pettis’ ability to understand when to hit the gas while in the line of fire and when to hold back.

“He is also very courageous in that respect,” Whittingham said. “You want a guy that has courage.”

Not surprisingly, Pettis and Washington lead the nation in punt returns averaging more than 21 yards per return. Wishnowsky is No. 2 in the nation in net punting, allowing just 16 total return yards on 38 punts in 10 games this season — an average of just 3.2 yards per return.

Washington coach Chris Petersen said he doesn’t boil down the special teams chess match this weekend to just two guys. The success of both coverage and return teams are predicated on the entire group executing whatever scenario presents itself.

“[Wishnowsky] does a great job, moves the ball around, has a big leg,” Petersen said. “Those guys that can do those type of things are always tough to deal with. Sometimes you don’t get opportunities, and it is what it is.”

And Wishnowsky agrees.

“I think that his punt team knows that he’s so good, so they’re willing to really work for him,” Utah’s punter said. “They’ll do whatever they can because they know if he gets any space, he’ll be off. His punt return team’s really good, and he’s really phenomenal himself.”

The Utes, like so many others, know the threat first-hand.

WISHNOWSKY VS. PETTIS <br>Washington’s Dante Pettis • Set an NCAA record for punt returnd for touchdowns in a career this season with nine and already has four this year alone. <br>Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky • Reigning Ray Guy Award winner, No. 2 in the nation in net punt return with just 16 yards allowed in 10 games.