OU analysis: Sooners look to win special-teams battle vs. K-State
BY GUERIN EMIG World Sports Writer
Monday, September 17, 2012
9/17/12 at 9:16 AM
NORMAN - Oklahoma's game at Kansas State last year got so far out of hand in the second half - the final was 58-17 - that you forget how tight it was in the first. You forget that it took Michael Hunnicutt's 53-yard field goal to stretch OU's lead to 23-17 going into halftime.
"That was huge," wide receiver Kenny Stills recalled. "That gave us some momentum, and we rode it from there."
All-American return man Tyler Lockett and reliable kicker Anthony Cantele figured to give Kansas State a big special teams advantage over the Sooners. But with Hunnicutt banging home a career-long boot and OU's coverage teams containing Lockett, the Sooners won the kicking game.
They'll want to win it again in Saturday night's rematch. They'll need to, given how closely the nation's No. 6 and No. 15 teams appear to match up.
What's interesting, given Bill Snyder's special teams mastery through the years as well as OU's special teams potholes of late, is the Sooners just might pull off another kicking game upset.
Lockett is back and dangerous as ever. He returned a North Texas kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown Saturday night, his third such score in 13 career games.
The Sooners counter with a defensive back-packed coverage unit that has held opponents to an 18-yard return average in two games. Meanwhile, Patrick O'Hara is taking advantage of the new kickoff launch point - the 35-yard line instead of the 30 - and has five touchbacks already.
OU also has the potential to turn a table of sorts on the Wildcats. Roy Finch averages 29 yards a kickoff return to give the Sooners their first big-play kick-return threat since DeMarco Murray was still around.
"I'm due. The program is due," Finch said, noting Murray was the last Sooner to run one back all the way five years ago. "We've got to get one."
Maybe Finch will get one Saturday. The Wildcats rank 75th in kickoff coverage.
Or maybe Justin Brown will score on a punt return. The Penn State transfer is sixth nationally with a 22-yard average after ripping off 62- and 43-yard returns against Florida A&M Sept. 8.
"He's been killing it," Stills said. "He's not letting that first guy bring him down. That's huge for us momentum-wise and field-position-wise."
Tramaine Thompson returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown in Kansas State's opener against Missouri State Sept. 1. Lockett had a 43-yard return that same night. The Wildcats excel in this phase as well.
And here is where the Sooners must be careful. After ranking 102nd last year in punt coverage, they rank 84th this season.
OU worked around that problem in Manhattan last October by only punting twice. Tress Way forced Lockett into a fair catch on one, while his coverage unit downed the other inside the K-State 20.
The Sooners will rely on Way again Saturday night. His 44.7-yard average leads the Big 12 Conference. They will rely on O'Hara to pin Lockett down, and on Hunnicutt to outkick Cantele as he did a year ago. They'll hope to get more dynamic moments from Brown and Finch in their own return game.
If that happens, they should be on their way to unplugging one of Snyder's most dependable advantages heading into games like Saturday's, and on their way to a sixth straight win over K-State.
Oklahoma up next
Vs. Kansas State 6:50 p.m. Saturday
Radio: KMOD fm97.5, KTBZ am1430
Original Print Headline: OU looks to win special-teams battle vs. K-State
Guerin Emig 918-581-8355
Kansas State kick returner and former Booker T. Washington standout Tyler Lockett breaks away from North Texas earlier this season. AP