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Minutes before Friday’s showdown against UCF, sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman was asked to carry the special teams flag out of the tunnel for the Cougars. Apparently they picked the right player.
Hoffman’s game-changing, 93-yard touchdown kickoff return in the 3rd quarter highlighted a special teams outburst for the BYU football team as they earned a resilient bounce back win over the Knights 24-17. The touchdown could not have been more timely for a Cougars squad desperate to prove its critics wrong after a disastrous showing against Utah only six days before.
“I learned [these players are] tough mentally, they won’t quit. They pulled together. This was a hard week, just bluntly speaking,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “The comments that were made to them and losing to their rival the way the 2nd half unraveled, that hurt them, myself included, and I was very proud of them for the way they responded.”
Against a solid UCF team, the Cougars improved on several mental aspects of their game. BYU caused four sacks, committed only three penalties and fumbled zero times, as compared to no sacks, eight penalties and six fumbles in week three.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps struggled against UCF’s highly ranked pass defense, but an improved running game, big plays on special teams and three consecutive fourth quarter turnovers forced by the defense gave BYU the edge in the back-and-forth contest.
“For our football team within our locker room it’s huge to be able to have experiences like that where you’re going to grow closer as a team,” Heaps said. “Guys are going to respect each other that much more and love each other that much more.”
The Cougars’ prospects for that kind of galvanizing win didn’t look as promising in the first half. The teams traded field goals to open the game, before BYU’s offense ran into familiar trouble as the team was intercepted, turned the ball over on downs and punted twice on its last four drives of the half. UCF quarterback Jeff Godfrey rushed for a touchdown as the first quarter expired, and following a scoreless 2nd quarter, the Cougars found themselves down 10-3 going into the break.
It was more of the same in the third quarter until the Cougars were able to capitalize on some favorable field position and tie the game on a 16-yard carry by senior running back JJ Di Luigi. Luigi’s run was BYU’s first rushing touchdown of the season.
UCF promptly responded with a touchdown of its own on the very next series, seemingly sagging the air out of the Cougars’ steadily built momentum.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hoffman fielded the ball at the Cougar seven, burst through a seam up the left side of the field and sprinted untouched to the end zone for BYU’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in thirteen years.
Hoffman said he knew a long return was possible days before the game started.
“When we first started watching film this week we noticed there was a weakness — they only brought five guys to the wide side of the field, and so we really just prepared for it,” he said. “I got past the first set of guys, my lead blocker took out the kicker and I knew I had it from there.”
One more momentum swing from special teams would put the Cougars ahead for good. Early in the fourth quarter, a booming punt from BYU’s Riley Stephenson sent UCF punt returner J.J. Worton back pedaling for the ball. Under pressure from the Cougars’ fast-closing coverage team, Worton bobbled and dropped the football, giving the Cougars possession at the Knights’ 23 yard line. Senior running back Bryan Kariya would punch it in on a six-yard carry just three players later, putting BYU in the lead 24-17.
UCF would put together three more drives before the game was over, once getting all the way to BYU’s 17 yard line, but the Cougars’ defense forced three straight Knight turnovers to seal the win.
The win had players reflecting on what it required from them to get their season back on track.
“We had a players meeting [during the week] and had a real heart to heart with each other,” Heaps said. “I think that was great for our football team, offensively and defensively getting on the same page. I think it carried over to practice and I think it carried over to [our] mindset. I really like where our guys’ heads are at right now.”
The Cougars will look to sustain their momentum this Friday at 6 p.m. when the team squares off with the Utah State Aggies.