On another night when BYU’s offense was short on consistency, the Cougars’ special teams came to the rescue Friday at LaVell Edwards Stadium in a 24-17 win over Central Florida.
The Cougars might have had two nice touchdown runs — a 16-yarder by JJ D iLuigi in the third quarter and a 6-yard score by Bryan Kariya in the fourth (which came after two strong rushes before that by the Cougar veteran) — but BYU’s offense was otherwise ineffective in sustaining drives and generating points.
Both of those scores, as impressive as they were, were set up by Riley Stephenson’s powerful foot. After booting a 56-yard punt in the first half, Stephenson’s most-effective punt came early in the second half when he pinned the Knights on their own 5-yard line. Four plays later the Cougars took over possession at Central Florida’s 38-yard line and eventually got inside the Red Zone for the first time all game and scored on Di Luigi’s run to tie the game 10-10.
Then, after the Knights took a 17-10 lead on Central Florida’s most impressive drive, Cody Hoffman’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown put the Cougars even with the Knights once again. Minutes later, after Central Florida place kicker Nick Caltoi missed a 35-yard field goal that would have given the Knights the lead, Stephenson let fly with a mammoth 66-yard punt that had Central Florida’s JJ Worton running backwards. When Worton muffed the punt, BYU’s Michael Alisa recovered inside the 10-yard line — setting up BYU’s game-winning score by Kariya.
With six minutes remaining and Central Florida trailing by a touchdown, Stephenson again pinned the Knights deep with a high and soft punt. Justin Sorensen also got into the special teams act by connecting on a 37-yard field goal for BYU’s first score in the first quarter.
Ironically, after the Knights took a 10-3 lead on a TD set up by Jake Heaps tossing an interception deep inside BYU’s own territory, the Cougars ended up winning the turnover battle 3-1. As already mentioned, the first Central Florida turnover, the muffed punt, set up BYU’s game-winning score. The second, a fumble near midfield, killed Central Florida’s first attempted comeback drive. The third, Joe Sampson’s interception inside BYU’s 10-yard line, ended what was looking like the Knights’ game-tying drive late in the game. All three Central Florida turnovers came in the fourth quarter, after the Knights had also missed a potential go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
The rest of the numbers, for the most part, favored Central Florida — even though that advantage turned out to be non-decisive in the game’s outcome. The Knights had 393 total yards to only 260 for BYU. Central Florida had a whopping advantage in passing yards, outgaining the Cougars 313 to 133 through the air. But the Cougars had a slight edge in rushing with 127 yards on the ground to Central Florida’s 80. However, most of those rushing yards came on seven plays. On BYU’s other 25 rushing plays, they barely gained 50 yards. Defensively, though, the Cougars never allowed Central Florida’s ground game to be any more effective.
The Cougars again struggled to throw the ball downfield, averaging only 3.8 yard per reception on Heaps’ 16 completions in 35 attempts.
The Cougars also committed two penalties that almost proved costly. A roughing the passer penalty early in the third put Central Florida on BYU’s 10, and the Knights scored three plays later. An excessive celebration call after BYU recovered the muffed punt took the Cougars from the 8-yard line back to the 23. Fortunately for the Cougars, Kariya’s hard-nosed rushing bailed them out.