A penalty when the ball has changed hands, or is getting ready to change hands, can be huge because there is so much field position lost by somebody pushing in the back, holding, being offsides or whatever. Any penalty you get in the kicking game is magnified in determining the outcome of a close game because the kicking downs are so critical in the outcome.
On Saturday night in the overtime Clemson's center picked up the football and had a false snap for a penalty on the play when the freshman kicker made his field goal. After the penalty the kid misses on the second field goal and that is what the game boiled down to. Who knows what would have happened if there hadn't been a penalty and the kid's first field goal was good. At the time that happened it wasn't clearcut which team had the momentum in the game.
Thinking back over my life in football there have been a lot of games I was involved in that were won or lost by big plays in the kicking game. One of those was in my senior year playing at Georgia when we beat Georgia Tech 7-6 and I blocked an extra point and field goal.
The season when we won the SEC Championship we almost lost to Auburn because of a mistake in the kicking game. Auburn scored its only touchdown that day when our up-back backed into the punter and Auburn got the ball at our two-yard line. We ended up winning the game 13-7 thanks to a big play from one of our kicking teams when Charlie Britt ran a punt back 39 yards for a touchdown.
My senior season at Georgia when we played Auburn the kicking game was the big factor, too, as Ed Dyas made three field goals for Auburn and Durwood Pennington kicked two for Georgia in a game that ended 9-6.
Probably two of the most talked about games in the Auburn-Alabama series were decided by big plays in the kicking game. Fans still remember Auburn's 17-16 win in 1972 when Bill Newton blocked two Alabama punts in the fourth quarter and David Langner returned both of them for touchdowns. Alabama had dominated the football game, but led only 16-0 when Auburn finally scored on a long field goal by Gardner Jett. What happened after that led to one of the most celebrated wins in Auburn history.
In the 1985 Auburn-Alabama game the lead changed hands three or four times in the fourth quarter and the game came down to Van Tiffin having to make a 53 or 54 yard field goal to win it for Alabama. He makes it and that makes him an Alabama hero forever.
I look back on the Auburn-Alabama series and we are a missed field goal by Robert McGinty and a made field goal by Van Tiffin away from winning eight in a row against Alabama so the kicking game has got a much more significant role in winning and losing than most people think it does.
Against Clemson on Saturday, Wes Byrum makes a long field to put Auburn up by three in overtime and that was the difference in the game. That same night Arizona was playing at home against Iowa and Arizona blocked a punt for a touchdown and they ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. Because of those plays they have their biggest win in years as a direct result of the kicking game.
The same day in the Michigan State and Notre Dame game Notre Dame makes a field goal in overtime and then Michigan State fakes a field goal and scores a touchdown to win. A big part of the kicking game is being able to defend fake kicks and punts and that was the difference in that one.
Nobody understands better than a head football coach how much the kicking game can determine the winner in a close game and how important it is to have good kickers on your team.
So what kind of guy does it take to be a successful kicker? I don't know if I can answer that. I do know that most of the kickers we signed out of high school didn't end up being our kickers whether it was on field goals or punts. For whatever reason there are always a lot of walk-on kickers and punters who developed into our starters. They would get out there in practice and start competing. You would have maybe 15 punters and 15 more kickers trying out for the team and they would start weeding themselves out. They can see out there on the practice field what the pecking order is.
I can look back on my 12 years as head coach at Auburn and can tell you that the great kickers have been a variety of different types of people with different personalities. The first great one we had was Al Del Greco, who proved what he could do in the NFL as well as at Auburn. Of all the critical kicks he made in his career, none were any bigger than the one he made to win the Sugar Bowl for us against Michigan for our 1983 team.
Another player I remember who became a great kicker for us was Lewis Colbert. He was a walk-on who became an All-American. Lewis was just a great punter even though he had a club foot. Brian Shulman is another punter we had who walked on. He was a transfer from Tennessee and did a great job for us. Terry Daniel, another All-American punter, was a walk-on who transferred from Alabama. One of the best field goal kickers in Auburn history was Scott Etheridge, a walk-on who really developed into a great player.
Jim von Wyl did a good job kicking for us as a walk-on and Win Lyle, who was a great college kicker, was a walk-on, too. Del Greco was signed before we got to Auburn, but it is interesting that most of our best kickers and punters were walk-ons while I coached at Auburn.
I can't really say what type of personality it takes to be a successful kicker or punter, I just know it has to be an individual with tremendous confidence, concentration and focus, a person who is also tough. I compare it with guys putting in golf. The great ones are the guys who can putt under pressure like the great kickers are the ones who perform at their best in pressure situations.
There are probably 100 guys at Auburn who have legs just as strong as the guys who are kicking for the football team, but they could never kick for Auburn because they couldn't stand the pressure. I think if you research it they will say the average successful kicker in the NFL will move to two or three teams before they settle down enough to be able to be able to handle the pressure. I don't know why that is.
Auburn senior Wes Byrum kicks a field goal against Clemson. He is a candidate for the Lou Groza Award presented annually to college football's top kicker.
I do know that close games are often decided by the kicking game and that is encouraging for Auburn to have a guy like Wes Byrum who is proven in pressure situations. That goes all the way back to his freshman year when he made those two field goals at the end of the game to beat Florida.
It's not just the kicker who has to handle the pressure when the game is on the line. It takes a good snapper, a good holder as well as a good kicker all executing properly with good protection. Like all things in football, it is a team game and it is not just one individual out there doing his thing.
I wouldn't know anything about the mechanics of kicking and I didn't coach them other than to say to our punters you have to be a one-step or a two-step guy because you can't get away with being a three-step punter in the SEC. I told them with the athletes in this league you won't be able to get your punts off as a three-step punter. I do know something about handling the personalities of kickers and I didn't want anybody fooling with my kickers, harassing my kickers or even trying to coach them unless it was somebody like Paul Davis who really knew what he was talking about.
I do hope that people who read this article have a greater appreciation of the mental toughness it takes to be a college kicker. My hat is off to those guys, particularly the field goal kickers. You can probably find a lot of guys who can kick extra points, but to be able to perfectly execute a long field goal with the game on the line takes hours, hours and hours to be able to do what they do."
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn, Dye participates weekly in the Legends Poll, a Top 25 rating of the best teams in college football as determined by a panel of all-star former head coaches. Dye will write three columns a week--The Dye-Log, the Dye-Gest and Pat's Picks.