San Jose State is facing another challenging game Saturday at Toledo, where the Spartans will play the defending Mid-American Conference champions in front of one of the rowdiest crowds they’ll see this season.
One way the Spartans can help silence the Rockets’ supporters, expected to be about 20,000 strong at Glass Stadium, could be on special teams. SJSU (1-2) has already experienced how a special teams play can instantly alter the momentum of a game.
Linebacker Jaylan Lawson’s forced fumble on the opening kickoff against Cal Poly clearly set the tone for the rest of the game as the Spartans went on to win 59-3.
Conversely, a breakdown can be just as deflating.
The Spartans trailed by just two scores in the third quarter of their season-opener against No. 6 USC when Trojans returner Zachariah Branch turned a low-hanging kickoff into a 96-yard touchdown that all but sealed SJSU’s 56-28 loss.
“We’ve seen big special teams plays happen to us and we’ve also made big plays on other teams,” said SJSU special teams coordinator Scott White. “We get another opportunity to go into the Glass Bowl this week and hopefully limit big plays and make some of our own on special teams.”
Special teams breakdowns have been rare this season for SJSU. As the Spartans’ offense and defense strive for more consistency, the kicking and return game has been steady.
“I think that special teams is such an important part of what we do,” SJSU head coach Brent Brennan said.
The special teams unit is one of the more experienced groups on the roster. Led by punter Alex Weir, kickers Kyler Halvorsen and Taren Schive and long snapper Andrew Gonneville, the group has already experienced many of SJSU’s big games over the years.
Unlike other colleges where there is one kicker who does both kickoffs and field goal attempts, SJSU uses two kickers to do each job.
Halvorsen, a transfer from Hawaii, is used as the team’s main field goal and extra point kicker while Schive handles kickoffs. Halvorsen has impressed the coaching staff thus far with his accuracy on kicks: He’s converted all 14 of his PAT attempts and is 2-for-2 on field goal attempts, including a long of 41 yards against Oregon State.
A consistent kicking routine along with extra work done during practice is what Halvorsen credits to what has brought him early success this season. Before each kick, Halvorsen said he says a short prayer and makes the sign of the cross before he attempts to kick the ball through the uprights.
“I feel like that’s given me a lot of peace on the field,” Halvorsen said.
SJSU hasn’t had a game decided by a last-second field goal in the Brennan era, but the coaching staff knows the importance of having good specialists in pressure situations. For a Spartan team that is going into Toledo (1-1) as 8.5 point underdogs, quality play in the kicking game could be the difference between winning and losing.
“Special teams is only going to be as good as your specialist who’s kicking the ball,” White said. “We really got to be great in the specialist room and being able to have a field goal guy and a guy who just does kickoffs is really beneficial.”
Weir has quietly been one of SJSU’s best players this season. Weir is third among Mountain West punters in yards per punt at 40.75 yards and is tied for second in punts inside the 20 with three.
Nicknamed the ‘fourth down QB,’ Weir’s introduction to football came by way of throwing touchdowns. Weir played both quarterback and punter at Colfax High School and still holds the record for most passing yards in a game with 463 yards.
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“Going out there and catching the snap is the biggest thing that has transferred over from playing quarterback to now being a punter,” Weir said. “Also being aware of people coming at me, I know how quick I have to get the ball off. I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t play QB.”
SJSU’s specialists will have a big challenge ahead of them when they step into Glass Bowl Stadium in Toledo. The venue is known around college football to be one of the loudest and rowdiest places to play.
“We’ve been building confidence in them by preaching to them and giving them a process that gives them clarity, so they can do things fast while avoiding the external factors,” White said.
“At the end of the day, the field is 53 and a third wide and 100 yards long. You could put us in a parking lot, put the ball down and say ‘let’s play.’ We’re excited for the opportunity. We love playing in rowdy environments and going on the road to try and create that silence.”