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When These Guys Falter, Losing Is a Kick in the Head

October 09, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

When are we going to learn? We spend all this time analyzing matchups, offensive lines versus defensive lines, receivers versus secondaries, coaching, schedule, surface of play. None of it matters.

College football always comes down to the kickers.

Those undersized, often unnoticed kickers.

In most other sports, the details matter. But they aren't left to specialists. It would be like settling basketball games with a designated free-throw shooter or deciding hockey games by bringing in two guys for a faceoff.

Kickers. From Florida State to USC, the kickers play a role in strategical decisions and can even alter the course of a season.

Just ask Bobby Bowden. He brings some of the best talent in the country to Florida State, names such as Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward, Derrick Brooks, Peter Boulware, Andre Wadsworth, Warrick Dunn and Peter Warrick.

And it all gets undone by the likes of Gerry Thomas, Dan Mowrey and Matt Munyon.

Two times Saturday the Seminoles faced a fourth down inside the Miami 20-yard line and decided to go for it rather than put their faith in Munyon's foot. They were stopped short both times.

When they finally gave Munyon a shot, he pulled an 18-yard attempt so far to the left it came closer to hitting the sideline photographers than the uprights.

That's why it was time to start cringing almost as soon as Miami's Jeremy Shockey crossed the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds to play. Adding up the numbers, the time and the score, it became clear this game would come down to a field goal.

And when Florida State-Miami comes down to a field goal, that's bad news for the Seminoles.

The brief history: Wide Right I, Thomas misses a 34-yard attempt against the Hurricanes in 1991. Wide Right II, Mowrey misses a 39-yard attempt one year later. Both losses cost the Seminoles a shot at a national championship.

The two times they did win they had coveted kickers. The first was freshman Scott Bentley in 1993, who made four field goals, including the winner with 21 seconds remaining, in the Orange Bowl game against Nebraska. In last year's championship campaign the Seminoles had Sebastian Janikowski, who went on to become a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders.

They seemed like distant memories Saturday. It was time to add another Roman numeral to the Seminoles' history of frustration when Munyon's 49-yard attempt went wide right. Miami 27, Florida State 24.

Now instead of the amazing Miami secondary--remember, those were Florida State receivers these guys were running down with ease--the topic du jour has to be kickers.

And much the same way kickers came to the forefront, it's time to pay attention to some overlooked championship contenders.

All of the preseason predictions focused on Florida State and Nebraska, as if it were an either-or proposition. Now you have to look at Virginia Tech, Clemson and Ohio State as Orange Bowl candidates. Kansas State is undefeated also, but the Wildcats can't be assessed properly until they play some real competition.

Virginia Tech gets to answer all questions in a Nov. 4 game against Miami. We'll see if Michael Vick can elude those Hurricane defenders who seem to come out of nowhere.

Clemson gets a shot at Florida State, which is still a solid team. If the Seminoles hadn't committed so many mental mistakes, they would not have had to suffer along with Munyon.

That just shows how big the Miami-Florida State game was. Not only did it have major implications for the status of Florida State's championship hopes and Miami's aspirations to return the program to the level of prominence it enjoyed in the 1980s, it also opened up the door for two more teams to take a crack at the championship later on. If Virginia Tech and Clemson finish undefeated with victories over these teams, they must be considered for the top two spots in the voters' polls.

At this point the national championship is a forgotten goal for USC and even a Rose Bowl berth looks like a longshot.

The Trojans' kicking game doesn't explain the stream of penalties, the interceptions or critical defensive breakdowns. But it does creep into play. David Newbury missed two field-goal attempts and an extra point in the first half. That changed the tone of the entire game. Instead of being within a touchdown and a two-point conversion despite two long Arizona touchdowns, the Trojans trailed, 21-6, at halftime.

For a USC team that had shown a proficiency at coming back the previous two games, they might have been able to hang on to some hope in the halftime locker room. Instead the Trojans trudged on, and never made it close.

The only change for the near future is that freshman John Wall will handle the kicking duties. Wall made a 27-yard field goal, but had an extra point blocked. But Wall is the guy who couldn't beat out Newbury during training camp, so how much confidence can that inspire?

Then again, how much can you count on any kicker? Wasn't that Janikowski who missed field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime for the Raiders on Sunday?

There's a reason why the time you're most likely to see football players gathered in prayer along the sideline is when the game comes down to a field goal.

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address:

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