Except for his final attempt, Ziifle (pronounced ZEE-full) essentially took the extremely dangerous Georgia return men out of the game, angling his punts to the sideline. "Michael was asked to do several things that were beyond the call of duty for him," Franchione said. "I think you have to give the young man a lot of credit for coming in and responding well in a difficult situation."
Filling in for the injured Lane Bearden, the pride of Newnan, Georgia performed above everyone's expectations last Saturday, averaging 41.7 yards per punt. "I was hoping to have a good game," Ziifle said of the opportunity to play against his home-state school. "But more than anything I wanted to win. If I would have had a bad game and we would have won, I would have been happy. The main thing was to win, but that didn't happen."
When Bearden went down trying to execute a fake punt versus Arkansas, the Tide lost more than just his 44.1 punting average. The team also lost its kickoff man and possibly the best kicker/safety on punt and kickoff coverage in the nation. "Lane's are probably the biggest kicking shoes in the country to fill," Ziifle said. "Not only do I have to punt the ball for a 46-yard average, but I've also got to bring a physical mentality to the game to try and make the plays he made."
After Bearden left the Razorback game with a knee injury, Ziifle was called on to punt twice. His average that day was an anemic 28 yards per attempt, but Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl explained afterwards that simply getting the kicks off as quickly as possible was all the Tide expected of Ziifle that night.
"At Arkansas I wasn't worried about punting for yardage," Ziifle explained. "I was just worried about catching and kicking. This week I worked on my punting. We worked on a scheme and a game plan. That was the difference. This week I planned on punting. Last week I was just catching and kicking."
Ziifle had all week to prepare for Georgia, and it showed in the results. Following a plan to angle his kicks away from the Bulldog return men, Ziifle had four of his six punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. "I don't even know my punting average; I did what we planned to do," Ziifle explained afterwards. "The plan was to direction punt, and that's what I did. I thought my first few punts were good. After awhile Georgia started figuring out what we were trying to do. They started dropping an extra guy back, trying to guess which direction we were going to punt."
Ziifle also did a solid job on kickoffs, utilizing "sky kicks" (Bama calls them "kangaroos") angled toward one sideline or the other to limit the Georgia returns. The strategy worked three of five tries, but poor kickoff coverage was probably to blame the other two times.
As the Tide's "long" field goal kicker, Ziifle also banged through a 47-yarder on Alabama's second possession of the game.
With Bearden sidelined and only an unproven true freshman backing him up at punter, one reporter wondered if Ziifle was under instructions during the game to avoid injury. "I wasn't thinking about that," Ziifle replied. "I'm trying to fill some huge shoes with Lane Bearden being gone. One of his shoes is tackling and being physical. I tried to do that today as much as possible."
Prior to the game fans worried about the drop-off in athleticism from Bearden to Ziifle. As Tommerdahl often explained, more than a few times Bearden had bailed Bama out of potentially damaging situations by snagging bad snaps and calmly getting the punt off. The concern was that Ziifle would not be able to handle errant snaps.
But the one time Saturday that the center snap was high, Bama's punter easily leaped to catch the football and got the punt away in the face of pressure. Ziifle recalled the play. "The ball just slipped a little out of Nick Ridings' hands. That's probably the worst snap I'll ever get from Nick, so I can't complain about that at all.
"It brought back memories of my goalie days in soccer. I had to go up and catch it and then get it down and get it going."
Bearden practiced last Thursday, and if his rehab continues he'll likely take back over punting duties soon. But football is all about stepping up when needed, and Ziifle has proven he can be effective. "I knew what I was able to do," he said. "I was just trying to show people that I could be a good backup for Lane. Step in when they needed me to step in.
"I wasn't worrying about the pressure--just worrying about the kicks."