When Mike Nugent jogs onto the field at Ohio Stadium these days, the stands ring with cheers of ‘Nuuuuuuuge,' while the scoreboard plays a fun little graphic of a head banging "Ted" Nugent. The fans cheer because they are all but certain that no matter the distance, angle, or even weather conditions that if the kick if it is humanly possible, Mike will be the one to make it.
With a confidence akin to that of a four year old child in their parents, over 100,000 in the stadium and millions watching at home wait in expectation for the ball to be snapped and sail through the uprights.
Only once this season has that trust been broken, but even so, Nugent made up for his errant kick against San Diego State by putting the eventual game winner through the uprights later in the contest.
Mike Nugent almost never even made it to Ohio State. With Josh Huston having been brought in the year prior by John Cooper, the Buckeyes were showing interest, but it was only lukewarm until Jim Tressel became the new head coach. Rarely does a top notch program place more than one specialist on scholarship at each kicking position. However, Tressel decided Nugent was worth the offer.
"I was glad Coach Tressel came in," Mike Nugent commented, "because I don't think I was going to get offered until Coach Tressel came in."
Half way through the 2001 season, most Buckeye fans probably thought coach Tressel had made a mistake.
Nugent struggled all season long on special teams, converting on just 7 of 14 attempted field goals. He might have lost his starting job had not Huston been even worse, hitting only 3 of 10 field goals.
Against UCLA, Nugent missed an extra point and a 45-yard field goal attempt. Huston would later miss a 47-yard field goal, and the Buckeyes lost by exactly seven points. Against Penn State, Nugent had a field goal blocked, and Huston was short on another. The Buckeyes would fall 29-27. Matters were so bad that in the Outback Bowl, instead of opting for a field goal, the coaching staff chose to try and convert a fourth and 16 from the South Carolina 27. The Buckeyes eventually came from behind to tie the game but fell short 31-28 while trying to win the game in regulation. A field goal on fourth and 16 might have made all the difference between a victory and another agonizing defeat.
Fans agonized in the off-season, and Mike Nugent found himself the butt of more negativity than anyone this side of Steve Bellisari.
He's come a long way baby…
The 2002 opened the season with a Riddler-sized question mark at the place kicking position. Would the Buckeyes suffer through another year of misery at the position?
The answer to that question would quickly become clear.
Nugent had spent time in the offseason working with Jeff Wilkins, the Pro-Bowl place kicker for the St. Louis Rams. According to B.J. Sander, Nugent used his sub-par performance in 2001 as motivation.
"I think Mike used that as a learning experience," Sander said. "He was a true freshman so there was a ton of pressure on him, especially after the year Stultz had the year before. He just went into the offseason after his freshman year and worked extremely hard on his accuracy."
In fact, Nugent became so accurate that he set an all time Ohio State mark for consecutive field goals kicked at 25 in a row. For a time, Nugent even challenged the all time record in college football.
That translated into multiple Buckeye victories.
In the second game of the season, Nugent booted three field goals against Kent State. A week later, he added three more against Washington State, each one over 40 yards in distance. Against Cincinnati, it was the five points that Nugent's leg provided (one field goal and two extra points) that was the difference between an 18-19 defeat and a 23-19 victory. His seven points in Madison, Wisconsin, meant that Ohio State emerged still undefeated by a 19-15 margin. A week later, Gamble was given the lion's share of the credit for winning the game against Paterno's squad, but it was actually Nugent who scored seven points to allow the Buckeyes to win 13-7.
Nugent even played an integral role in the overtime victory against Miami of Florida. Teams can and do lose games because of missed extra points in the extra periods. Florida dropped a bowl game to Michigan several seasons ago and Middle Tennessee State lost in overtime to Missouri this year for just that reason. So, making the extra points was essential to winning.
"It is one of those things that Coach Tressel always emphasizes," said Nugent. "Every point counts, even it if is an extra point and your first extra point of the game. I mean, teams can win a game 7-6 because they missed an extra point in the first quarter. It is just one of those things, you have to remember every point is crucial."
All told, Buckeye fans might see three games from 2001 that could have been lost because of poor kicking but in 2002, Nugent more than redeemed himself by kicking the winning points through the uprights on at least 4 occasions and arguably two more (Purdue and Illinois).
Given his struggles in 2001, did Mike himself ever imagine he would have that kind of success?
"I really didn't. Me and my parents sometimes sit down and we kind of wonder, ‘Who would have thought things would have went this well?' We won the national championship. I mean I would be living out my dream right now? I have always wanted to play football for Ohio State, and I actually get to do it. I just kind of sit back and think how important it is to me."
Having fun and looking forward to the future…
These days, Mike Nugent is up to his old tricks. Though he probably will not nail another 25 straight field goals this year, he is 7 of 8 right now. He leads the Ohio State team in total points, and when the coaches are in need of a few points to pad a lead or even win a game, they know where to go to get them. His ten points in the San Diego State game (a 16-13 win) and six in regulation against NC State (with another two in overtime) leave no question of his value to this team.
Where he once was simply ecstatic to be on the field, his proficiency has now reached the point that many believe his future is as bright as any Buckeye kicker since Tom Tupa.
Not surprisingly, Nugent's goals have evolved with this meteoric rise.
"Once I signed with Ohio State I thought, ‘You know, I am going to do the best I can and see, like, see what I can do just to win a national championship and just to help out with that.' But, once things started progressing I thought maybe, you know, if I keep this up maybe I can play football for the rest of my life, which would be the most fun thing I could ever do. It is one of those things. I am working on first of all to make everything I can just to win games and then in the end try to bring it on to the next step," he said.
Through it all, Nugent has been having the time of his life. He commented on his experiences at Ohio State, stating, "I think it's one of those things that has been working out really well. I just have so much fun playing for coach Tressel and the rest of my teammates and all the coaches we have on the coaching staff. It's just – I am having so much fun. I never go into practice thinking I don't want to be here. I mean, this is what I do. It's an opportunity. It is a privilege to play, it's not my right that I get to play on the team. I'm privileged to play on the team, and it is one of those things I am really thankful for."
Given his humble attitude and unerring leg, perhaps it is the Buckeye faithful who are privileged right now.
Kickers like Mike Nugent don't come along every day, and there's a good chance fans will still be talking about his kicks at Ohio State for decades to come.