DALLAS — Time after time BYU punter Riley Stephenson pinned Tulsa near the Golden Hurricane goal line in the Cougars' 24-21 win in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Friday.
Those kinds of plays on special teams loomed large in BYU's hard-fought win over Tulsa in Ford Stadium.
Some may argue, in this close of a game, it was the difference because BYU's offense was stagnant most of the day.
"I counted seven times, they had to start drives behind their 20," said BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, who enjoyed a huge change in momentum when Reed Hornung forced a muffed punt by Tulsa return man J.D. Ratliff right before halftime.
That play, with BYU trailing 14-3, set up a Nelson-to-Cody Hoffman touchdown pass, just before intermission, cutting into Tulsa's lead to make it 14-10.
"It made all the difference in the world," said Nelson.
Tulsa's defense hadn't allowed a long BYU drive to that point and was dejected, according to its coach. That turnover may have flipped the game around and set the stage for a comeback.
"Man, if your special teams are going to give you a gift like that, you have to capitalize. If you aren't putting drives together, you got to find a way — myself included.
"We got a little spoiled this year because we were able to mount 70- and 80-yard drives time and time again, Nelson said. "Tulsa did a good job of limiting that. But our special teams kept us in it, especially our punt team."
Of Tulsa's 15 possessions, three started inside its own 7, with two inside the Tulsa 16. With eight minutes to play and Tulsa nursing a 21-17 lead, Stephenson's punt fell dead at the Golden Hurricane 1-yard line with two Cougars ensuring it did not go over the goal line.
BYU's defense then forced a Tulsa punt, which JD Falslev returned to midfield with four minutes remaining. It gave Nelson a short field to hatch the game-winning drive and touchdown play, culminating with his third TD pass of the day to Cody Hoffman.
"I thought our punter and our punt coverage was on the money," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "In a close game, the statistics are fairly close, but the difference, in my opinion, was the punting game."
He'd get no argument from his opponent.
"Good teams take advantage of those kind of plays," said Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship.
"Ultimately, those are the kind of things that separate two teams when they are very close."
On the day, Stephenson punted eight times for 335 yards, an average of 41.9 per kick, seven ending inside the 20. Kicker Justin Sorensen made his only field goal attempt of the game, a 35-yarder in the first quarter.
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