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Oklahoma State punter is enjoying positive recognition

STILLWATER, Okla. — Punter Matt Fodge is fine with people ignoring him during Oklahoma State football games. Really.

"That's one thing that's tough about this position," he said. "The only time you get noticed is whenever you shank a punt or drop a snap or a fake doesn't work, and that's happened this year. So really, my job here is to go unnoticed."

He managed to do that most of the season for No. 13 Oklahoma State (9-3), which will play No. 15 Oregon (9-3) on Dec. 30 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

But apparently the people who select the winner of the Ray Guy Award — given annually to the nation's best collegiate punter — did pay attention, honoring him earlier this month. Since winning what his position coach, Joe DeForest, refers to as the Heisman Trophy for punters, Fodge has enjoyed the limelight often reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.

"It's been really fun," he said, "probably the most fun since I've been here."

Fodge readily acknowledges that his position isn't glamorous and that when a punter takes the field too much, that's not a positive thing for a team.

But he also understands that a punter plays an important role in determining field position, and he embraces that responsibility.

"Most people see the punter or the punt unit as the last play on offense, but really it's the first play on defense," Fodge said. "My main goal, my job, is to get the defense in the best field position possible, so it's important for me not to be selfish.

"If you're kicking from the 38-yard line, you can kick it out of the end zone, but it's more beneficial to the team to get it inside the 5-yard line."

It's that approach to the job that endears Fodge to the Cowboys' head coach, Mike Gundy.

"He's been a self-starter," Gundy said of the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior from Garland, Texas. "Our snappers, holders, kickers and our punters come over with us for stretches (at the start of practice) and a 20-minute special-teams segment, then they go to a different field to work by themselves for an hour and a half and there's nobody watching them.

"The reason he's had so much success is because when he goes over there, he works at it. He doesn't goof around and waste time. He's very serious about what he does."

Oklahoma State averaged 41.6 points per game this season, and that offensive productivity significantly cut into Fodge's workload. After punting 66, 50 and 51 times during his first three seasons, Fodge had only 31 punts this season.

But he made the most of the limited opportunities. The Cowboys downed 17 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line and seven others resulted in fair catches — and thus no return yards. When opponents did manage a return, they didn't make it far, averaging 5.1 yards on 10 returns.

Fodge, who had only one punt result in a touchback, averaged 44.1 yards per kick. His longest punt, 71 yards against Texas Tech, pinned the Red Raiders at their own 3.

Fodge gives credit to the Cowboys' punt coverage teams for his glossy numbers, but his teammates also said Fodge deserves praise.

"He helped out our defense a lot, pinning teams inside the 10 or inside the 20, and really did a lot for the football team," said quarterback Zac Robinson, Fodge's longtime roommate. "Obviously he'd like to get out there a little bit more, but it's sometimes tough to see when he goes out there."

Fodge keeps a sense of humor about it, sometimes joking with Robinson on the sideline that "maybe you could throw an incomplete pass or something and let me get out there." But when the Cowboys do score, he has another important role, serving as the holder for kicker Dan Bailey, who has made all 61 of his point-after attempts and 14-for-17 field-goal tries.

Fodge also laughs about what arguably was his most infamous play of the season — a failed fake attempt when the Cowboys faced fourth-and-17 from their own 24 in the second quarter against then-No. 3 Missouri on Oct. 11.

Fodge was stopped five yards from a first down, and Missouri took advantage of the short field, scoring a touchdown. After the game, which the Cowboys won 28-23, Gundy said he wouldn't reveal if coaches called for the fake or Fodge took off on his own. Asked last week, Fodge also declined to answer the question but said he appreciated Gundy backing him up.

"The Missouri game, I got noticed," Fodge said. "The first punt ... I took off running and it didn't work out, and obviously everyone saw that. Then I go out and had a 69-yarder, and I'm back up on a high, then I had a rough punt toward the end of the game, shanking it, then having to go out there and get that last one off with just a couple of seconds left to seal the game.

"It doesn't matter to me if we punt five times a game or we don't punt at all. As long as our team wins the game, that's the ultimate goal. Like coach Gundy said after we won the Ray Guy, it's more of a team award than anything, because the number of punts that I had was based on how successful our team had been. Where I punted the ball is attributed to how successful the offense was."