MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

OSU

November 20, 2012

Special teams in sync for Cowboys

— STILLWATER  — After blocking a punt for the first time in his career, Oklahoma State’s Zack Craig was a bit surprised when he was asked to try for another in the same game. He was even more shocked when he turned his second block into a touchdown.

“To get in the end zone was just nuts,” said Craig, a third-down linebacker when he’s not serving as the Cowboys’ special teams ace.

Craig’s two-block game was the latest standout performance on special teams for No. 22 Oklahoma State (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) heading into this Saturday’s rivalry game (ESPN, 2:30 p.m.) at No. 14 Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1).

The Cowboys have scored special teams touchdowns in three straight games, with Craig’s return following kickoff return scores the previous two weeks by Justin Gilbert and Desmond Roland.

And that’s only the beginning. Quinn Sharp matched his career-best with a 51-yard field goal last week in a 59-21 blowout against Texas Tech, and the Cowboys got a pair of turnovers on special teams the week before that during a 55-34 shootout win against West Virginia.

“Our guys have bought into the plan, and that’s what’s helped,” Sharp said. “We’ve stayed sound in what we were doing. We didn’t make it too complicated, we didn’t try to do too many different things and it’s worked very well for us.”

Despite Roland’s runback against K-State, coach Mike Gundy called the overall special teams performance in the loss “very poor” and it spurred a turnaround at a program that takes the kicking game seriously. The Cowboys were one of the rare college teams with a special teams coordinator until Joe DeForest left after 11 seasons to become West Virginia’s defensive coordinator.

Even then, Gundy plucked Ty Linder away from Texas Tech and made him a special teams coordinator as a graduate assistant.

“We’ve gotten much better,” Gundy said. “The players have bought into the system and our game plan each week, and it comes down to them. They have to want to do it and we have to put them in that position.”

The Cowboys got two key turnovers on special teams in the West Virginia game. The first came when a bouncing kick went off the helmet of the Mountaineers’ Andrew Buie.

Even more crucial was Teddy Johnson’s recovery after Tavon Austin couldn’t get out of the way when Sharp’s punt bounded sideways with the Cowboys leading 31-24 in the third quarter. OSU converted the possession into a touchdown and held on for the win.

On Saturday night against Texas Tech, six of the Cowboys’ 10 kickoffs went for touchbacks and the Red Raiders started with even worse field position the other four times. Their lone punt return went for three yards.

That meant all the big plays on special teams went in Oklahoma State’s favor.

“Coming up with big plays on special teams like that each week, it’s so much momentum in a game. It just helps overall in the long run,” said Sharp, who averages the most field goals in the country and would be in the top 10 in punting average if the Cowboys punted frequently enough for him to qualify.

Craig’s two blocked punts marked the first time Oklahoma State had multiple blocks in the same game since the Kansas game two years ago, and they came as part of careful planning by Oklahoma State.

The Red Raiders’ punt formation relied on three blockers in a center shield protecting punter Ryan Erxleben, and Craig said he’d been frustrated during practice because he was unsuccessful trying to come across the punter for a block. Gundy and Linder suggested he run past the punter and simply reach his hands toward the ball as he went by.

“The first time I tried it in practice, I blocked it,” said Craig, who included a series of blocked punts and PATs in the game tape that helped him get recruited to OSU.

For it to pay off in a game was even better. The Cowboys led 21-7 at the time and got a touchdown four plays later to break the game open.

“That was awesome for us. We practiced that all week and we thought had a chance of getting one,” Sharp said. “We thought that their operation time was a little slower than most people’s, and their punter, I don’t think he did a very good job of staying inside the shield.”

Craig used a similar technique to get around the shield for the second block, which led to the touchdown.

“Blocking two punts is hard to do in one game, or even a season,” Gundy said. “But Zack likes to play football, it’s important to him and he worked hard and studied tape and it paid off for him.”

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