Sunday Rewind: Special Teams Won The Game

For all the outcries on poor kickoff and punt coverage, of Kip Smith's off-the-side-of-the-foot punts or short kickoffs, of Ben Grogan's missed field goals, and the Tyreek Hill returns that don't get past the 15-yard line, Saturday's 37-20 win over Iowa State was a glorious one for the special teams as the third side of the ball made the difference.

Let's start low and build to the crescendo on this. Kip Smith had three, count them, three kickoffs that went for touchbacks. That was easily a season high. Smith appeared to have more energy and strength in his leg. Could it be he cut back on his practice work this week allowing for more energy on his kicks?

Smith only averaged 36.0 yards per punt, but the net punt was 35.8 yards. One of the big factors on coverage of both kickoffs and punts was all of the youth (freshmen) playing on those units. Texas Tech was penalized on nearly every return but the Red Raiders did return for a lot of yards and they weren't the first team to do so. Iowa State, however, averaged just one yard on punt returns and 20 yards on kick returns.

“I took over kick coverage and punt coverage this week, but I’m going to give it up tomorrow," head coach Mike Gundy said while joking in his post-game comments. "We challenged those guys.

"We’re all using youth as an excuse. At this point, it has to be over with because it doesn’t matter anymore. They did a good job. They’re starting to understand a little more the coverage and squeezing gaps, getting a feel for the return, locating the ball, not running past the ball, work sideways and rally as a group. They’re getting a little bit better."

Grogan was three-for-three on field goals, although the distances were 34, 30, and 34 yards. Grogan has now hit nine consecutive field goals and he is 12-of-15 on the season. Outstanding!

Special teams biggest impact on the win came on a pair of plays that were about a minute apart in clock time. Late in the second quarter Kip Smith kicked off after Grogan's 30-yard field goal tied the game. The sky kick, as Iowa State head coach Paul Rhodes called it, was effective. Iowa State bungled the attempt to field it with poor communication and Elliott Jeffcoat, the Cowboys' walk-on special teams veteran from South Carolina, didn't wait for an invitation to recover it.

"The big play there was when the ball hit the ground, and [Elliot Jeffcoat] was in position because he was playing with a lot of speed," Gundy explained. "He loves to play the game.”

"It was a great moment," added Jeffcoat. "We were really struggling for momentum at that time, and it was my first chance to really make something happen. I knew it would help out the offense and the defense, so it was kind of like a two-for-one. I was just doing it for my team, making a play and doing my role. Things happen when you hustle hard, and you've got to give it your all until the end of the play."

The next special teams play that helped turn the tide came to start the second half as Tyreek Hill did what almost every Cowboys fan had been waiting for when he broke off a kickoff return for a touchdown. The 97-yard return that started on the right side and then turned up the middle and a sprint to the east end zone was clocked by ESPN at 10.97 seconds to the time that Hill literally leaned across the end zone and broke an imaginary tape.

"He's really fast and fun to block for," said special teams player and redshirt freshman Dawson Bassett. "You know if you do your job and get him a seam he is going to have the chance to go all the way."

It was a momentum crusher for Iowa State that was already steaming from the penalty review that ended the first half and reversed a goal-line stop and turned it into a touchdown for the Cowboys.

"It zapped us even more and I think the ensuing drive and touchdown did a lot to bring us back. We faced adversity and responded to it today," Rhodes said.

Special teams were special on Saturday and will need to stay special the final seven games of the season.

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