As Washington knows full well from its games against USC in 2009 and 2010, the importance of special teams can hardly be overstated. If the Dawgs hope to take home their second victory in three years from the Trojans, it's imperative that they not repeat the special teams miscues that helped Oregon rout the Dawgs last week.
Place Kicking: Zach Banner won't be the only Washingtonian from the class of 2012 on the SC roster who makes the travel squad to Seattle this weekend, as fellow true freshman Alex Wood, a walk-on from Mercer Island High School, assumed place kicking duties for the Trojans after 2011 All-American Andre Heidari underwent knee surgery after suffering an injury in the season opener against Hawai'i. Heidari is slowly regaining his role as the undisputed starter, but his two misses from 40 and 44 yards last week against Utah suggest that he might not have re-established a lock on that status just yet. At worst, Kiffin has a backup in Wood who has shown consistency in hitting all of his PATs (8) but has not yet been asked to attempt a field goal, let alone one in a pressure situation.
Kickoffs: SC's primary kickoff specialist this year has been Craig McMahon, a walk-on third-year sophomore who is seeing the field primarily to ease the load of Heidari. The injured starter's workload is increasing as the season progresses --- Heidari had two kickoffs along with three field goal and five PAT attempts last week against Utah --- and he seems to be approaching full strength once more, but Kiffin's desire to ease him back into the swing of things likely explains why McMahon is the first player listed on the Trojans' depth chart for Saturday's game. Regardless, SC does a good job over covering its kickoffs no matter who is bombing the ball downfield, and their opponents have gained more than 25 yards kickoff returns on just two of the Trojans' 31 kickoffs in 2012.
Punts: The Trojans have punted a mere 16 times this year, good for 14th in the nation, which means that it's difficult to extrapolate any meaningful data from such a small sample size. One thing that can be said for certain is that SC covers those punts exceptionally well: On the strength of second-year starting punter Kyle Negrete's performance, opposing teams have attempted to return just six of those 16 punts, and aside from one return that Hawai'i broke for a 39 yard return, average a miserable three yards per attempt. Don't be surprised to see Sark put Cody Bruns in to return punts with explicit instructions to fair catch each one, especially in the wake of last week's first-quarter turnover by Marvin Hall that helped Oregon jump out to such a decisive early lead.
Kickoff Returns: For reasons that I can't begin to fathom, opposing teams keep kicking the ball to Marqise Lee, pictured above, when he has already punished one team with a return trip to the end zone. Travis Coons has shown an inability to reach the get touchbacks (only one out of 23 kicks this year), and it wouldn't be surprising to see Lee take advantage of that weakness a few times and give Matt Barkley a short field to work with.
Punt Returns: Cornerback Nickell Robey and receiver Robert Woods are splitting PR responsibilities for the second consecutive year, and both boast double-digit return averages (Robey with 12.3, Woods with 10). Both have had fairly quiet seasons in this phase of the game, and it feels like it's only a matter of time until one or both breaks off a long return. Washington's punt coverage team will have to play with solid lane integrity if they hope to delay that result for at least one more week.