Oregon knows that all too well, having lost to Auburn on a field goal as time expired in the 2011 BCS National Championship.
If Ohio State reaches field goal territory with the game on the line, it will be putting the game in the hands of a true freshman kicker who has converted 13 of 20 attempts this season. Sean Nuernberger is 8 of 10 from 20-29 yards this season and 5 of 10 from 40-49 yards.
Although he’s struggled at times, he wants to be the person OSU head coach Urban Meyer turns to with the game on the line.
“Yeah, some guys might be scared of that but I think I embrace it and I really love that,” Nuernberger told BuckeyeSports.com at OSU’s media day on Saturday. “I think it’s cool. When you go out there, every single person is focused on you. They’re not focused on the guy blocking or anyone else. It’s kind of a one-man show, and I think that’s cool. Obviously it’s either really good or really bad, but I’ve grown to love it.”
As it turns out, the pressure he experiences in a game is nothing compared to what happens in practice. Meyer, who holds a psychology degree, is fond of making his presence known when his freshman kicker practices, either breathing down his neck or standing just out of reach.
Mike McCabe, the founder of One On One Kicking (where Nuernberger trains), experienced Meyer’s psychological tricks when the OSU head coach was an assistant at Illinois State.
“There’s nothing worse than Urban Meyer’s pressure cooker,” McCabe said. “You’ve got college students screaming at you and football players screaming at you. If you miss and your team’s running… I’m not missing. There’s no way.”
It’s been working lately. Nuernberger converted both field goals against Alabama, connecting from 21 and 22 in the win against the Crimson Tide. He was 1 for 2 against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, with the miss coming on a block.
Heading into the biggest game of his young career, the Kentucky native is feeling good about the way he’s striking the ball.
“I’m hitting the ball well now,” he said. “I hit the ball well in the week before the Alabama game, hit the ball pretty well in the game. There were a few things I still need to clean up. I’m hitting the ball pretty well this week, too, so I think I just have to be confident going into the game.”
That confidence was lacking earlier this season. Nuernberger missed two field goals in the Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech and hasn’t made more than three in a row at any point this season. His most successful stretch came when he drilled a 41-yarder against Kent State followed by a 42-yarder and 25-yarder against Cincinnati.
Nuernberger attributed his inconsistency to a flaw in his mechanics and approach that came with learning on the job as a true freshman.
“A lot of the kicks I’ve missed the same way, just pushing the ball to the right a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s all really because I lost a little confidence this year and just tried to tap the ball through the uprights. It’s like, ‘It’s just 40 yards, so just tap it through.’ When you don’t follow through, the ball goes off to the right a little bit.”
His instructors believe that he’s adjusted in recent weeks, and distance is no issue when Nuernberger is on the top of his game.
“When Sean has the right type of swing and uses his hip and everything, that’s when he can really boom the ball,” said Dick Seitz, a One On One Kicking instructor who works with Nuernberger. “He’ll be one of the best. I’ve seen him hit 65-yard field goals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. That’s how good he is when he’s hitting the ball properly.
Now that Nuernberger has fixed that problem, confidence no longer appears to be an issue either. If the game comes down to the final seconds, he wants to be the guy to win it.
2014 FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS
Navy – 46 yards (good)
Navy – 28 yards (good)
Virginia Tech – 40 yards (no good, wide left)
Virginia Tech – 27 yards (no good, hit left upright)
Kent State – 41 yards (good)
Cincinnati – 25 yards (good)
Cincinnati – 42 yards (good)
Maryland – 48 yards (no good, wide right)
Maryland – 28 yards (good)
Penn State – 49 yards (good)
Penn State – 41 yards (no good, wide right)
Illinois – 44 yards (good)
Illinois – 26 yards (good)
Michigan State – 47 yards (no good, short)
Minnesota – 22 yards (good)
Indiana – 46 yards (no good, wide left)
Wisconsin – 23 yards (good)
Wisconsin – 29 yards (no good, blocked)
Alabama – 22 yards (good)
Alabama – 21 yards (good)