Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports
In the run up to the January 3 Fiesta Bowl between K-State and Oregon, The Jug will be running a series of potentially overlooked variables that should determine the game’s final outcome. Up first: the number of K-State punt returns.
While Tyler Lockett was expected to storm out as K-State’s devastating punt returner this fall, the majority of his returns have come on kickoffs where Lockett has averaged 33.3 yards and recorded two touchdowns. He should also be fully healthy again after suffering an ankle injury against TCU. Yet Lockett’s fellow receiver Tramaine Thompson has logged the majority of the team’s punt returns this year, netting 308 yards on 13 returns for a 23.7 yard average with one touchdown. Yet no matter who ends up deep when Oregon faces 4th and long, it’s critical they have a shot at bring the ball upfield.
K-State’s special teams play has been tremendous this year, changing the way its opponents play. Harkening back to 2011, the Wildcats have once again won multiple games while being outgained in yardage by winning the field position battle. Lockett and Thompson force teams to kick out of bounds or make ridiculously high punts to force fair catches. Although both of these outcomes cause shorter than optimal punts, it’s crucial that Thompson be given a couple chances to make plays.
Oregon’s punter, Jackson Rice, has a good though not great leg. Rice is averaging 40 yards per punt with a long of 56 on the season. He has the ability to pin K-State deep, and an attempt to do so may provide the opportunity K-State needs to demonstrate why it led the league in average punt return yardage. The Wildcats recorded 22 yards per return, while Oklahoma was second best with 14.9. However, it was this danger that cause opponents to avoid returnable punts altogether – Oklahoma State’s 34 returnable punts more than doubled the 16 that K-State received.
A lack of punt returns in the Fiesta Bowl may also be indicative of another statistic: Oregon’s willingness to go for it on fourth down. The Ducks unabashedly converted 19 of their 27 fourth down attempts this year, good enough for 70.4 percent. If the risk/reward calculus of punting to Thompson and allowing a 40 yard return is worse than attempting that which the Ducks have enjoyed a 70 percent success rate in, Oregon could enjoy additional scoring opportunities if K-State fails to halt fourth down attempts. One long punt return could force a shift in Chip Kelly’s punting decisions, causing the Ducks to punt less and gamble more.
Punt return chances don’t guarantee huge gains for the Wildcats – they can just as easily result in holding penalties or even muffed catches. However, if Thompson or even Lockett see three opportunities in January, odds are good that one will go for a big gain. There are fewer bigger momentum shifters than returns that put the offense in scoring position or go all the way to the house. The key is getting those opportunities.