If the kicking situation this season at UCLA is any indication, the health of USC's Andre Heidari heading into Saturday's Stanford game is much more important than many are realizing.
Heidari, the Trojans' impressive true freshman placekicker, sprained his right ankle on the 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Notre Dame's George Atkinson III in Saturday's win over the Irish, and he has been using crutches to get around campus since, which Trojans coach Lane Kiffin called "obviously not very good" for his chances to play Saturday.
USC doesn't have a men's soccer team to turn to for a last-second replacement. If Heidari can't go against the Cardinal, USC will use walk-on Craig McMahon for extra points and kickoffs and probably try to avoid most field goals outside of 30 yards. Even if he can, it's likely the Trojans' typical strategies will be changed to incorporate more going-for-it and pooch-punting and less kicking inside the opponents' 40-yard line.
It's hard to overstate the potential impacts of that, from USC's decision to punt from the Irish 30-yard line in the third quarter to the 32-yarder Heidari missed in the fourth quarter a few minutes after his first point-after attempt barely went over the bars.
USC is lucky his missed field-goal try didn't change the outcome of the game, because the Irish got the ball back after the miss down just seven points, 24-17, and with all the momentum on their side. If not for Chris Galippo's recovery of the incomplete pass from Tommy Rees to Cierre Wood ruled a rush and fumble, Notre Dame could easily have tied the score.
Heidari went back out and converted the extra point after USC's ensuing touchdown, but McMahon kicked off, allowing Notre Dame to get its next drive started at its own 36-yard line. Of course, that one ended soon after it started as well, with Nickell Robey picking off Rees' third pass to seal the outcome.
But it didn't erase Heidari's struggles after suffering the injury.
"I've never kicked with tape on my kicking foot, so it was just a different feeling for me," Heidari said on the field after the game before limping up the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium to the locker room. "I just tried to come out here and push it through but it restricted me a little bit."
In retrospect, Heidari said, he shouldn't have used the tape on his ankle. He received a painkilling injection at halftime, and he said he should have just used that to tide him through for the rest of the game. The tape made it unnatural.
"He was getting better as it went along, but it was pretty hairy," associate head coach and special teams coordinator John Baxter told the media after the game. "Bottom line, Andre Heidari is a tough kid, and that kick that he missed, he would have never missed that. He hasn't missed one like that since you guys have been watching practice.
"You know something's gotta be wrong when that's the case."
Heidari said he would have gone out for another field-goal attempt if it had come up, but it clearly wouldn't have been ideal. And, if Saturday's Stanford game comes down to the kicking games for the second straight season, that wouldn't be ideal either.
Remember, Stanford's Nate Whitaker kicked a 30-yarder as time expired last year to give the Cardinal the victory just minutes after missing an extra-point attempt to put them at risk of losing.
This season, Heidari is now 11-of-13 on field goals; Stanford's Jordan Williamson is 11-of-12. Both players are clearly well-equipped to win games for their teams in five days' time, but Heidari will probably be at least somewhat shorthanded by his ankle -- if not entirely out of the game, of course.
"That kid is a warrior, let me tell you," Baxter said of Heidari after the game. "He did what he had to do to get the job done."
Let's see if he can continue to.