Placekickers are missing short attempts at a surprising rate, and nothing can be taken for granted.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 2, 2004
When TCU holder Reeves Dalton mishandled a low snap during the final extra point of a 45-44 double-overtime loss to South Florida on Sept. 25, it became the latest incident in which the kicking game has played mind games with college football teams and fans.
LSU, Oregon State, Auburn, Tennessee and Florida among them.
Is it time to quit taking the foot for granted?
"It seems like all the kickers got together and decided they were sick of people not talking about them," said TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose team's 33-yard fourth-quarter field goal against USF was blocked. "I think it's like winning and losing. Sometimes, there aren't any explanations."
But clearly something's amiss.
Four weeks into the season, Division I-A teams were hitting 94.1 percent of extra points compared with 95.3 percent last season. Since 1981, the lowest has been 92 percent in 1991.
"There have been a few more (misses) than usual, but I think it runs in cycles," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "The last couple of years, you didn't see a lot of misses."
The roller-coaster ride began the first week of the season.
On Sept. 4 against LSU, Oregon State's Alexis Serna missed three extra points. His final kick would have forced a second overtime against the Tigers, who won 22-21.
Serna kicked a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter, but the lasting image from that game is his extra point sailing wide right, LSU players rushing the field to celebrate and Serna slamming his helmet to the ground in anguish.
"I was really in shock because that's never happened to me before," Serna said. "It was a big thing to me. I'm really passionate about kicking, and I love it. And it was tough to see people ask me if I've seen the replay and I'm like, "Not really because it's going over and over in my head right now.' "
Florida State kicker Xavier Beitia can sympathize. Although he has made 57 consecutive extra points and 134 of his past 135, a blocked field goal in the opener against Miami would have given FSU a 13-3 lead late. He also missed a 43-yard field goal at Miami in 2002 on the game's final play, and he missed one late in January's Orange Bowl that would have given FSU the lead in a game it lost 16-14.
"I wanted to e-mail (Serna), but I couldn't find his e-mail on the Net," said Beitia, a former kicker for Jesuit High in Tampa. "A couple of years ago, honestly, I would have been like, "This guy is horrible.' But after you've been through the ups and the downs, you realize stuff's going to happen and you just have to keep going. It can happen to anybody."
This season, it has happened to a lot of people.
Two weeks after LSU's win over Oregon State, Auburn kicker John Vaughn's extra point went wide left. LSU's Ronnie Prude was penalized for jumping to block the kick and falling on an Auburn player. Vaughn's second attempt just cleared the upright and Auburn won 10-9. Earlier in the game, LSU's Ryan Gaudet missed an extra point.
Tennessee's James Wilhoit missed a tying extra point late against Florida on Sept. 18 but redeemed himself with the winning 50-yard field goal a few minutes later. Florida's Matt Leach missed a 21-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Also on Sept. 18, Mississippi State's Keith Andrews missed a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter. The Bulldogs lost 9-7 to Division I-AA Maine.
Sept. 25, USC's Ryan Killeen missed a 23-yarder with 11:10 to play against Stanford. The Trojans went on to win, but Killeen is 2-of-6 on field goals this season.
"We have to get more consistency for sure because we are going to need those kicks to win down the road," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We're concerned about it, but he will get it together."
Zook is taking a different approach with Leach, who missed two 47-yard field goals Sept. 25 (one blocked) and is 2-of-5 this season.
"Matt's going to be fine," he said. "No question kicking is a little bit mental. Kickers can get out of a groove very easily, kind of like a golfer. You tweak on the swing, and then they are not hitting smooth.
"It can be a very, very little thing that happens, and all of a sudden, things are out of whack."
Truthfully, coaches don't spend nearly as much time pandering to high school kickers as star quarterbacks and blue chip defensive linemen. And even if a kicker is considered tops in high school, the transition is often difficult. High school kickers use tees, and the goal posts are wider, 23 feet, 4 inches compared with 18-6 in college.
With scholarships reduced to 85, coaches are often reluctant to use one for a kicker straight out of high school.
"You don't have any guarantees when you go out there and get that good high school kicker that he's going to be a good kicker in college," South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. "We've recruited them out of high school, gave them scholarships. Some of them turned out very well. Some never kicked for us."
Florida State coach Bobby Bowden is a strong proponent of recruiting kickers but knows nothing is certain.
After missing field goals late against Miami in 1991 and 1992, Florida State signed Scott Bentley. Bentley was so touted, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its 1993 preview issue.
In his first five games, seven extra points were missed or blocked. However, Bentley made a 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to give Florida State an 18-16 Orange Bowl win over Nebraska and the national title. "I think every coach would love to find a walk-on (kicker)," Bowden said. "A lot of times, you'll sign a good kicker and he can't kick. In high school, he's been kicking off a tee, and all of a sudden in college he has to kick off the grass. Some of them, you don't get what you thought you were getting."
Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report.