Friday, September 24, 2004
Plenty of reasons why kickers struggle
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
You've seen Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit go from goat to hero with two swings of his right leg.
You've seen LSU, the defending national champion, win a game because Oregon State missed three extra points. And you've seen LSU lose at Auburn by missing an extra point.
You've seen Iowa State kicker Brian Jansen miss two of seven extra points.
Oregon State's Alexis Serna's struggles with PATs allowed LSU to escape with a win over the Beavers.
You've seen Iowa kicker Kyle Schlicher miss two extra points in his first game, which is one more than his All-American predecessor, Nate Kaeding, missed all season a year ago (No pressure, Kyle).
So are you going to believe the NCAA or your own eyes?
"Despite some people thinking that extra points are way off this year, they're not," NCAA statistics guru Jim Wright said Thursday.
An extra point: snap, hold, 20-yard kick from the middle of the field. It's so automatic, it's worth only one point. Last season, Division I-A kickers made 95.3 percent of their extra points, the highest percentage since the NCAA narrowed the goalposts from 23'4" to 18'6" before the 1991 season.
According to the NCAA, through four weeks of this season, kickers have converted 990 of 1043 extra points, or 94.9 percent. Put another way: somewhere in I-A, if one missed extra point in each of the four weeks had been made, then the kickers would be on the same record-setting pace as last season.
There's an old saying in baseball that the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter is one hit a week. That's for one hitter. We're talking about one poor schlub in one game, banging his kick not off the upright, but on the inside of the upright, so that it falls over the crossbar.
We're not asking a lot.
Special-teams mistakes are as much a part of early-season football as high temperatures and high expectations. The errors usually involve blocked kicks or poor coverage that result in touchdowns that swing the momentum of the game. They don't usually include extra points.
They do in the Big Ten, where teams have made only 109-of-120 PATs, or 90.8 percent. That's 11 misses in a league in which there were a total of 18 misses last season. According to Wright, nothing is amiss. It only seems that way.
"My best guess," Wright said, "is that the games in which extra points were missed have been more prominent games on TV."
Three Southeastern Conference games -- two of them televised nationally last Saturday by CBS -- and the complexion of both of the league's division races, hinged on missed extra points.. It could have been inexperience. It could have been the unusually dry, breezy weather. It could have been coincidence.
Ole Miss was able to tie Vanderbilt at 23-23 and win in overtime because the Commodores didn't convert an extra point in the second quarter. Auburn beat LSU, 10-9, because LSU kicker Ryan Gaudet missed an extra point in the first quarter. It was Gaudet's first attempt of the season. In the first two weeks, the Tigers' Chris Jackson missed two extra points.
"It seems like there have been more missed kicks than usual," LSU coach Nick Saban said this week. "Who knows what causes it? We have the same kickers we had last year. When it gets magnified, the kickers get out of their psyche and put pressure on themselves. It enhances the problem instead of solving it."
Auburn nearly gave that one-point margin back when John Vaughn missed a PAT himself with 1:14 to play, but LSU's personal-foul penalty gave Vaughn a second chance.
"Kicking is a little different psychology," Saban said. "Rather than getting out there and competing, they have to make one shot, one time."
That's what Wilhoit, the Volunteer sophomore, did when he made a 50-yard field goal with six seconds to play to give Tennessee a 30-28 victory over SEC East rival Florida. That's not what Wilhoit did when he missed an extra point with 3:25 to play, stalling the Vols' comeback at 28-27, one point shy of the Gators.
Wilhoit wasn't at a loss to describe his failure, the first miss of his collegiate career.
"I guess I just got caught up in the emotion," he said. "My head went up and I ended up pushing the ball to the right. I had a sick feeling."
He had no theories for the other prominent missed kicks.
"I took it for granted," Wilhoit said. "The Oregon State kicker (Alexis Serna), those were probably his first extra points he ever attempted in a real game. He hit the post. They had a penalty and he hit the post again. It got in his head."
Iowa State coach Dan McCarney pulled Jansen, his errant kicker, after his second miss last Saturday against Northern Illinois and gave Scott Krava a chance. Krava went two-for-two.
"A lot of guys can do it all day in practice and scrimmages," McCarney said. "They get out there in front of a full stadium and a national TV audience, it's a whole lot different."
When Wilhoit walked into two communication classes on the Tennessee campus Monday, his fellow students gave him a standing ovation in each. But Wilhoit learned not to get used to the adoration.
Take Sunday morning, when he pulled into a Knoxville gas station.
"This old guy was talking," Wilhoit said. "'That danged kicker cost me $50.' I said, 'That was lucky. I can't believe he made it.'"
Wilhoit said he will have no problem preventing the standing ovations from going to his head. Sometimes, it seems, some good can come from missing extra point.
"The thing that was a little different for me," Wilhoit said, "is that (without the last field goal) I would have been blamed for costing us a game. You see how quickly things can turn."
All the NCAA statistics in the world can't change what Wilhoit knew in his gut. He may have learned his lesson the easy way, but there's a good chance he doesn't take an extra point for granted again.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at email@example.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.