In the Big Ten Championship game, Michigan State lost to Wisconsin 42-39 and instead of Rose Bowl-bound, they were Outback Bowl-bound.
We're not blaming kickers for every three-point loss -- it's usually an entire team's undoing -- but kickers do tend to be in the spotlight in those close games. They're a hero one minute and a goat the next. They may miss all but a few seconds of playing time in a game, but those few seconds that they're on the field can be the difference between a win or a loss. This week we've got some numbers for you to mull over in terms of the kicking game -- some BCS conference contenders are in great shape while others ... not so much.
Two years ago, head coach Lane Kiffin regularly opted to "go for it" on fourth downs and two-point conversions rather than line up for a field goal or PAT. Some called him arrogant but the reality was he didn't have a lot of faith in the kicking game. Last year, true freshman Andre Heidari changed everything for USC by converting 88.2 percent of his field goal attempts, the third best in FBS. He only missed two field goals the entire season -- one miss was on a sprained ankle against Notre Dame -- and was perfect on PATs, kicking 50 out of 50 through the uprights. The Trojans are set if Heidari stays healthy.
Alejandro Maldonado will share the kicking duties with Rob Beard, but Maldonado will likely kick most of the field goals. Maldonado hit seven of his 12 attempts last year but struggled in the 40-plus yard range -- in his six attempts of at least 40 yards, only two were successful. In their 42-39 loss to USC, the Ducks attempted a fourth down conversion on USC's 33-yard line rather than try a 50-yard field goal when they were down 7-0 in the first quarter -- the attempt failed. Maldonado also missed a game-tying 37-yarder in the final five seconds of that game. If your kicker is very shaky on field goals over 40 yards, there should be concern.
Drew Alleman made 16 of 18 field goal attempts last season, making him second most accurate kicker in FBS at 88.9 percent. He also converted 62 of 63 PATs, with the one failed attempt due to a bobbled snap in the Tigers' first game of the season against the Oregon Ducks. Alleman's accuracy was the best in the SEC and he finished as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. The kicking game is in excellent shape.
Last season the Panthers lost three regular-season games by three points or less. Placekicker Kevin Harper struggled for accuracy only hitting 21 of 31 field goal attempts. One of his most costly misses was against Cincinnati -- Harper had nailed a 52-yard field goal in the first quarter but in the game's waning seconds, his game-tying 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide and Pittsburgh lost, 26-23. Harper's consistency (67.7 percent) needs to improve, especially in the 40- to 50-yard range where he only converted seven of his 12 attempts. The Panthers kicking game is an area of concern for 2012.
The bad news is that Louisville lost senior kicker Chris Philpott. The good news is that Philpott's 66.7 percent accuracy (12-of-18) probably won't be missed that much. John Wallace made a 52-yard field goal in the Cardinals' spring game, so we know he can boot it, but he also missed a 32-yarder. There's a bit of mystery surrounding who will be the starting kicker. Andrew Fletcher and Matthew Nakatani are both walk-ons and true freshman Josh Appleby will be on campus over the summer. All three have no experience and thus, this looks like a critical area of concern.
Georgia lost two games last season by three points -- one to South Carolina in September and the other to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl -- and senior Blair Walsh had a total of three missed field goals in those two games. This year Jaime Lindley and Scott Eichler return, but the Bulldogs' secret weapon is incoming freshman Marshall Morgan, one of the top-rated kickers in the country. Last year Morgan made 15-of-16 field goal attempts and 98 percent of his kickoffs landed in the endzone, according to Scout.com's Chad Simmons. He's a promising prospect but like Lindley and Eichler, he hasn't been tested, and their combined inexperience makes the kicking game a concern.
Last season was a mixed bag for the Crimson Tide's kicking game. In their November 5 game against LSU, Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley shared duties and the two only made two of six field goal attempts -- Foster missed three-of-four while Shelley made one and the other was blocked. In the end it didn't matter, as Alabama beat LSU in the BCS Championship game. Both kickers return this year, but despite their experience, Saban has to be concerned with the kicking unit's consistency.
Quinn Sharp returns and Cowboys fans should be thrilled with this solid kicker. Sharp was ranked the third most efficient punter in FBS last year (46.28 average yards per punt) and the fourth most accurate field goal kicker (88 percent). Sharp connected on 22 of 25 field goals and booted 79 of 80 PATs. In the Cowboys' game against Iowa State, Sharp missed a late-fourth quarter 37-yard field goal that would have given Oklahoma State a 27-24 lead -- the game instead went into overtime and Oklahoma State not only lost the game 37-31 (2OT) but a BCS Championship game berth as well. Beside that one critical miss, Sharp has been fantastic -- the Cowboys' kicking game looks great.
Oklahoma returns Michael Hunnicutt. As a freshman last year, he made 21 of 24 field goal attempts and was a perfect 3-for-3 between 40 and 49 yards -- he also made a 53-yarder against Kansas State. He's got a big leg and will only get better over time. In fact, let's put Hunnicutt on either this year's or next year's Lou Groza Trophy watch list. Oklahoma shouldn't have any worries about the kicking game for the next few years.
Tyler Bitancurt's field-goal stats are interesting in that he's a lock in both short and long-range field goals but very shaky mid-range. From under 29 yards, he went 8-for-8, but from the 30- to 39-yard range he missed three of nine with one attempt blocked. Should there be any concern? Yes. In their last four regular-season games the Mountaineers lost one game by three points and won three games by a combined seven points. This year West Virginia plays in the Big 12, where the competition is more elite than those four teams that kept the scores too-close-for-comfort last year.
Brendan Gibbons made 13 of 17 field goal attempts last year -- that's not exactly comforting when you consider that of his five attempts at 40 or more yards, he only made two of them. Gibbons, did however, make all three of his attempts in last season's Sugar Bowl, including a 37-yarder in overtime -- Michigan won 23-20 over Virginia Tech. His 76.5 accuracy percentage can be improved upon, but he did prove his mettle in that Sugar Bowl victory. His long-range inconsistency, however, may haunt them this year.
The Spartans' Dan Conroy will be starting at placekicker for the third straight year. Conroy was perfect on his PATs (48 of 48) but his kicking game can improve -- Conroy missed two field goals of 27 yards and 46 yards in Michigan State's Green and White spring game. Last year Conroy missed a second-quarter 51-yard field goal against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game and the Spartans lost the game 42-39. Michigan State went to the Outback Bowl -- instead of the Rose Bowl -- but Conroy did make the game-winning field goal to lift the Spartans to a 33-30 triple-overtime victory over Georgia. While they do have a veteran kicker returning, like Michigan's kicker, I'm not sold on his consistency.
The Cornhuskers have become a football factory for the NFL but surprisingly, two of their former players now playing in the NFL are kickers -- Josh Brown (New York Jets) and Alex Henery (Philadelphia Eagles). Senior Brett Maher -- a walk-on -- won Big Ten punting and kicking awards last year and is a legitimate candidate for both the Lou Groza (kicking) and Ray Guy (punting) Awards this year. Maher made 19 of 23 field goal attempts (82.6 percent accuracy), 43 of 44 PATs and is ranked second in field goal efficiency behind Ohio State's Drew Basil in the Big Ten Conference. This unit is solid.
The Hokies' spring depth chart lists one kicker: redshirt sophomore Conor Goulding. Cody Journell had most of the kicking duties last year (14 of 17) but he was arrested on felony charges of breaking-and-entering in December. Journell recently agreed to plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and may be reinstated to the team after a six-month suspension. Michael Branthover had punting duties last year but he was an excellent placekicker at Dematha Catholic High School (MD) and could be in the mix. Bottom line is that nothing will be resolved until the fall so this unit is a question mark.
Chandler Catanzaro had a very nice 2011, making 22 of 27 field goals (81.5 percent) and 52 of 53 PATs. Catanzaro had the second-best percentage in the ACC along with Florida State's Dustin Hopkins, but the ACC's leader, Cody Journell, attempted 10 fewer field goals than Catanzaro and Hopkins. The bottom line is that Clemson's special teams unit is loaded with talent (hello, Sammy Watkins) and this is a huge strength along with their cache of offensive weapons.