I’m excited for Boise, so I can go out and show it wasn’t a fluke and do it again. —BYU punter Jonny Linehan said.
PROVO — For BYU punter Jonny Linehan, there was nothing like the first time. And there was a first time for everything last Saturday at Nebraska.
The Auckland, New Zealand native, and Cougar rugby star, played in the first football game of his life and he turned in an impressive debut.
And Linehan was impressed by the atmosphere at 90,000-seat Memorial Stadium.
“It was like rugby was some elementary school playground compared to that,” he said. “Even in New Zealand, our biggest stadium seats only 50,000 people. It was crazy running out there. The stands were so tall and there was a sea of red and little specks of blue. It was awesome. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and one I’m grateful to be a part of.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound junior’s first punt pinned the Cornhuskers back at the 12-yard line. His second attempt traveled 64 yards and landed at Nebraska’s 11-yard line. In the third quarter, Linehan uncorked a 77-yarder.
“I was pretty nervous. I was walking down the stairs into the locker room (before the game) and I was like, ‘Alright, let’s see how much my hand is shaking,’” Linehan said. “I was a little bit nervous because I know obviously punters don’t have a crucial role until you don’t do your job right. I was more worried that I wasn’t going to do a good job. I worked hard during the summer and I trusted in my leg, which I’ve done in the past with rugby. It worked out.”
This week, Linehan ranks No. 2 in the nation in punting, tied with Florida Atlantic’s Dalton Schomp, with a 51.0-yard average. He’s booted five punts for 255 yards.
“Loved our punter. Holy smokes,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “From not knowing how the rugby transition would work and being his first college game, he was another one who didn’t seem too worried about anything other than he was having fun. He and (quarterback) Tanner (Mangum), different personalities but kind of the same approach. It was one of the differences in the game. Our punter was very, very, very good.”
Linehan is looking forward to playing in his first game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where the Cougars host No. 20 Boise State Saturday (8:15 p.m., MT, ESPN2).
“I’m excited for Boise,” Linehan said, “so I can go out and show it wasn’t a fluke and do it again.”
Thousands of miles away in New Zealand, Linehan’s family watched him play on television, struggling to understand a sport they’re not familiar with.
“They were watching the Nebraska game and they had no idea what was going on,” he said. “‘What was that? Was it good or bad? The commentators say it was good. We don’t know.’ They were confused.”
At Nebraska, Linehan had to deal with a stiff wind throughout the game.
“I shouldn’t have let it affect me that much, but there was a super strong wind. I think four of my five kicks were against the wind. The first one wasn’t too bad I put it on the 12. But I feel like I’m better than that. It was a good first kick to get under my belt. Next time, I’m hoping to get it inside the five.”
Special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga liked the way the punt team performed.
“A lot of it had to do with the wind. Jonny kicked the ball well, but the wind helped him out with a couple of those punts,” he said. “But for his first college football game, to come in and do what he did, I’m very happy with that.”
“It was no surprise,” said defensive back Matt Hadley of Linehan’s punting. “Jonny’s a great athlete, a great rugby player. He just did what we all knew he could do. I was really happy for him.”
Of course, the way the game ended, with the Cougars snatching a 33-28 victory on the last play of the game on a Hail Mary, made the experience even more memorable for Linehan, who has led the BYU rugby team to three straight national championships.
“My rugby coaches will kill me, but that was one of the most exciting things I’ve been a part of, besides my wedding day, of course,” Linehan said. “It was awesome. It was amazing. We still had belief. I was walking up and down the sideline. I’m more of an outspoken punter. Some people go sit by the fans. I’m going, ‘We’ll still win this!’ Everyone believed, which made it extra special. The ball was thrown up and we saw Mitch (Mathews) catch it. We weren’t quite sure if he made it over the plane (of the goal line) or not but then we realized he did.”
Right after the game ended, it so just happened that the first player Mendenhall hugged while he ran around on the field was Linehan.
“I went straight for coach Mendenhall. He was running around like a plane,” Linehan said. “I said, ‘Come here, coach!’ I think that’s the first time he’s looked at me.”
For Linehan, everything was new and he loved every minute of it.
“The whole experience was crazy. I’ve never been treated like royalty before like that,” he said. “Before the game, we had the chartered flight, the police escorts, the fancy food. It was gorgeous. The game itself was crazy. Running out in front of Nebraska — they’ve got some of the best fans in the world. It was awesome to run out there in front of 90,000. I feel like I played pretty well. The way we finished the game was surreal. It was just a dream.”