Special teams could decide Bedlam

NORMAN, Okla. -- The Bedlam matchup between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could come down to one play.

And it wouldn't be surprising if that game-changing play occurred on special teams, especially if wintry weather ends up impacting the game.

"It's hard to simulate elements," OSU special teams coach Joe DeForest said. "Judging punts and kickoffs becomes difficult."

DeForest pointed to the Sooners' game against Iowa State when a Cyclones player dropped the ball after OU's kickoff was blown back up the field and the Sooners recovered the ball just before halftime.

If the conditions are bad, ball security becomes even more important.

"You harp on being safe with the football, don't take chances," he said.

The impact of special teams was never more apparent than in the 2009 Bedlam meeting in Norman when receiver Ryan Broyles broke the game open with his punt return exploits.

Broyles had eight punt returns for 209 yards and one touchdown in OU's 27-0 win.

"It's always a major factor," OU coach Bob Stoops said of special teams.

The Sooners and Cowboys have each fielded solid special teams units this year with OU finally shoring up its field goal kicking thanks to Michael Hunnicutt, and Quinn Sharp doing a terrific job of handling the placekicking, kickoff and punting duties for OSU.

Hunnicutt has made 19 of 22 field goal attempts in 10 games this season after taking over for senior Jimmy Stevens heading into Big 12 action.

Sharp has been solid, hitting 17 of 20 field goal attempts this season and has put 50 of 98 kickoffs into the endzone for touchback. He's also averaged 48 yards per punt on 37 attempts.

DeForest has made a point to limit Sharp's kicking during the week in an effort to keep from overworking on the junior's right leg.

"Overall he's handled it well both mentally and physically," DeForest said.

Oklahoma punter Tress Way has been an anchor of the Sooners special teams for the past few seasons. He's averaging 42 yards per punt with 15 punts over 50 yards and 31 punts inside the 20-yard line.

The kicking game is fairly even with Hunnicutt, Way and Sharp each in the middle of superb seasons.

Kickoff coverage was a major issue for both teams a year ago, but they have improved this season. The Sooners are allowing 20.23 yards per kick return and have held opponents under 20 yards per kick return in the last three games.

"They're a lot better on kickoff coverage," DeForest said.

The Cowboys are allowing 24.44 yards per kick return but thanks to Sharp's strong leg, only half of OSU's kickoffs are returned. And their 24.44 average is a three-yard improvement over last year's kickoff coverage team.

Both teams are average on punt returns with Broyles out for the season. Kenny Stills has stepped into Broyles' spot and brings game-breaking speed to the Sooners, Josh Cooper is averaging 9.6 yards per punt return for OSU.

The Sooners kickoff return game has improved in recent weeks with some solid returns from Trey Franks. If either team holds any advantage, it could be OSU on kick returns with dynamic sophomore Justin Gilbert, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in last season's Bedlam game. Gilbert is averaging 26.9 yards per kick return including two kickoff returns for touchdowns.

"I'm surprised a lot of people are kicking to him," DeForest said. "He is such a tremendous athlete, he's a one cut guy then get vertical."

Stoops said there's not much you can do to prepare for an explosive returner like Gilbert.

"We just practice it really hard," Stoops said of kickoff coverage. "I don't know that there's any way [to prepare for him] other than kicking it out of the endzone."

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.

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