Brigham Young Cougars punter Riley Stephenson was one of several role players whose well timed big plays were very influential in BYU’s 24-21 Armed Forces Bowl win over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. In fact, it was the third time this junior has had a strong performance in a bowl game.
Back in 2009 as a freshman, Stephenson punted four times. Three of them were into a 42 mile per hour wind. That hurt his average yards per punt, but anyone watching the game knew he performed admirably in the poor conditions.
Both of his first quarter punts were 27 yards. Stephenson used a low, rugby style kick to get his punts to go that far. The short distance was understandable with the strong wind. Nevertheless, no one was singing his praises after those punts. That changed in the second quarter when BYU and Oregon State changed directions. Just like Stephenson, the Beavers’ punter punted twice into the wind during that quarter. Just like Stephenson, both his punts travelled the same distance. Unlike Stephenson, both his punts only went 6 yards.
In the final minute of the second quarter, Stephenson unleashed a 60 yard punt. His final punt of the game was into the wind. It went 36 yards, and was downed at the Oregon State 8-yard line. He finished with a 37.5 yard average on four punts. Only one was returned for five yards.
Last year in the New Mexico Bowl, Stephenson didn’t get much work. He only punted three times, but finished with a 53.3 yard average (60, 56, and 44 yards). The total return yards on his three punts was two yards.
As impressive as Stephenson was in his first two bowls, the Armed Forces Bowl last Friday was his best. The Cougar offense didn’t score as much as it had the previous two bowls (44 and 52 points, respectively), which meant Stephenson got more work in that one game than the previous two combined. He punted 8 times and averaged 41.9 yards per punt.
While the 41.9 yards average is considered good, the best part of Stephenson’s punting was how he helped BYU control field position. The importance of field position in this game’s outcome cannot be overstated. Stephenson’s first two punts pinned Tulsa inside its own 10-yard line. His next two punts ended inside the Tulsa 15-yard line.
Stephenson’s fifth punt was another punt inside the 20 yard line. The hang time on the 41-yard punt was perfect. As soon as the Tulsa return man fielded the punt at the 16-yard line, the BYU cover team made contact, which resulted in a fumble. Several BYU players were on the spot to quickly recover the ball with 25 seconds left before halftime.
That turnover, the only turnover of the game for Tulsa until the game’s final play, gave BYU the golden opportunity it desperately needed to score a touchdown before halftime and close the deficit from 14-3 to 14-10. Stephenson’s punt and the subsequent touchdown radically changed the course of the game.
About halfway through the fourth quarter, Stephenson made his eighth and final punt of the game. It was his shortest, just 32 yards, but that’s all the room he had. The ball was downed at the one-yard line. Pinning Tulsa this deep proved to be very valuable in many ways.
Trailing 21-17, BYU needed to stop Tulsa from scoring. That is much easier when the drive starts so close to the opposite goal line. BYU also needed to score one more touchdown to win the game. That, too, is much easier when the drive starts at the opponent’s 48-yard line. Stephenson’s punt enabled the Cougar D to put pressure on the Tulsa offense and force a punt, and the Cougar O was perfectly set up at the Tulsa 48-yard line with 4:18 to play to score the game winning touchdown.
Stephenson ended the game with seven of his eight punts inside the 20-yard line. His longest punt was 58 yards. Only one punt was returned, and that was the one that was fumbled just before halftime.
In three bowl games, Stephenson has punted 15 times for a 43.0 yards per punt average. Nine of the 15 punts (60%) have landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Five punts (33%) have been over 50 yards. Most impressive, however, is probably the fact that the three bowl opponents have returned Stephenson punts for a mere 8 yards (0.53 yards per return).
Stephenson has played a key role in BYU’s school record three game bowl win streak. His punts have helped BYU win the field position battle and helped build momentum, while opponents have gained zero momentum.
Riley Stephenson’s Bowl Stats
2009 Las Vegas Bowl (Beat Oregon State 44-20)
4 punts, 37.5 yard average, 1 inside 20, long 60
1- 27 yards (into the wind), downed at BYU 49, 13:57 1st Quarter
2- 27 yards (into the wind), to BYU 42 (returned 5 yards), 10:28 1st Quarter
3- 60 yards, out of bounds at 23, 0:54 2nd Quarter
4- 36 yards (into the wind), downed at 8, 13:19 4th Quarter
2010 New Mexico Bowl (Beat UTEP 52-24)
3 punts, 53.3 yard average, 1 inside 20, long 60
1- 60 yards, touchback, 6:06 2nd Quarter
2- 56 yards, to 23 (1 yard return), 3:20 3rd Quarter
3- 44 yards, to 17 (1 yard return), 2:46 4th Quarter
2011 Armed Forces Bowl (Beat Tulsa 24-21)
8 punts, 41.9 yard average, 7 inside 20, long 58
1- 33 yards, downed at 6, 5:25 1st Quarter
2- 58 yards, out of bounds at 7, 12:52 2nd Quarter
3- 33 yards, downed at 14, 10:01 2nd Quarter
4- 53 yards, fair catch at 12, 6:35 2nd Quarter
5- 41 yards, to 16 (1 yard return), fumbled BYU recovered, 0:25 2nd Quarter
6- 49 yards, out of bounds at 19, 12:42 3rd Quarter
7- 36 yards, out of bounds at 42, 12:56 4th Quarter
8- 32 yards, downed at 1, 8:05 4th Quarter
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