(Photo: Casey Ferrierae/WCSN)
The Western Michigan Broncos have negative punt return yardage through the first six games of the season, and that is the only team in the nation that has managed to be more ineffective at returning punts than No. 17 Arizona State. The Sun Devils rank 127th in the nation out of 128 at punt returns and average less than one yard in the category.
No. 23 Stanford couldn’t be more opposite, as the team’s 21.2 yards per return rank sixth in the nation and have proven to be a game-changing advantage for the Cardinal. And the credit belongs to one player, Ty Montgomery.
“He’s the best in the country,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said of Montgomery. “He is tremendous. So we have to do a great job at kicking the ball, we have to do a great job at hangtime on both kickoff and punt, and go attack and play. He’s the best there is.”
ASU’s defensive and special teams coordinator Keith Patterson also raved about the big play ability of Montgomery, a consensus All-American in 2013.
“Obviously, he’s dangerous in the return game,” Patterson said. “He’s 6-2, 220 pounds, big, strong, physical. Plays like he’s 190 pounds, moves like a 190-pounder.”
While the ASU coverage units have taken some heat so far in 2014 for some big plays allowed in the return game, the coaches have pointed toward inconsistent kicking as the cause for the problems. With Stanford and Montgomery coming to Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Graham has spent much of the week working closely with punter Matt Haack.
“Ty Montgomery is a great returner, so there’s a lot more focus on special teams this week,” Haack said. “One of the big reasons [Stanford] was Pac-12 champions last year was their special teams.”
Stanford wasn’t as dynamic a punt return unit in 2013, but the team finished second in the nation in kickoff returns. With Montgomery handling both duties, Graham has emphasized that plenty of hang time from Haack and kickoff specialist, Alex Garoutte, will be particularly important so as to allow the coverage units time to get in position to cover.
“The biggest thing is just hang time,” Haack said. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve been focusing on this week: Getting the ball high and giving my coverage team a chance.”
Haack did a solid job at allowing his coverage team time to bottle up Nelson Agholor on five of six punts against USC. However, one punt, which he admitted went off the side of his foot, had little hang time and allowed the dangerous Trojans receiver the room necessary to spring a 53-yard punt return touchdown.
With Montgomery’s big play ability rivaling any player in the nation, no player is more vital to ASU’s success at slowing the Stanford playmaker than Haack.
“[Montgomery]’s a great player so you just respect what he does and try not to give him a great opportunity to do what he does,” Haack said. “You have to smother him.”
If the Sun Devils are able to smother Montgomery, it will go a long way towards earning an overall victory in special teams for the day. That’s something that Graham says is a key to winning on Saturday.
“We have to check the box that we won special teams, that’s a must,” Graham said. “The other must is owning the football. A hundred percent ball control and win special teams and you win the game.”