"Just For Kicks"

As we count down the clock and approach the kick -off of today's huge game against Oregon, The Bootleg's Aaron Mills takes a look at last week's special teams performances in South Bend. The Stanford Offense has been so efficient that the punting game has been making mere cameo appearances. Let's hope that continues!

"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills

The Ducks are up next and there could be a lot more special teams action today that there was last week. After beating up Notre Dame to go 4-0, the Cardinal gets its true first national-caliber test. 

Last Saturday was so matter-of-fact, such a methodical, dominating performance against the most storied program in college football history. Wait, our most "recent" win over Notre Dame on the road had been back when I was suiting up for the Cardinal & White back in 1992? That is one long dry spell against the irritating Irish!

Happily, we can say now that our last win on the road against Notre Dame occurred this past Saturday! I was happy to see the Cardinal bring back a big "W" from South Bend and enjoyed immensely our leap up in the polls by seven spots from #16 to #9. Also, we can now two wins in a row against the Golden Domers, which won't hurt Stanford's reputation or recruiting efforts. If we can somehow get past perennial powerhouses Oregon and USC in the next two weeks, it will do wonders for our rising program.

Before I get to the sensational special teams effort against the Irish, I must say that I'm very proud of the way we closed out the game on Saturday and methodically put the game out of reach. It's a testament to the solid character of this bunch. I'm sure if you size up the sheer number of Notre Dame fans to Stanford fans around the country, we would fall far short (not in spirit of course). But we didn't fall short in the points production category, carving out a convincing 37-14 win that has contributed to a tremendous 4-0 start to the 2010 campaign. With a solid showing against the Ducks and Trojans, this quickly could become quite the magical season!

And special congratulations are in order for senior fullback/linebacker Owen Marecic for his record-setting sequence in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns in 13 seconds on either side of the ball. Last season, the limelight was consistently on Toby Gerhart, and now Owen's star is shining brightly this year. Soak it up and keep it up!

While it may make things challenging for one tasked with commenting on the punting game, I am quite happy to be deprived of material with which to work. Punter Daniel Zychlinski (#36), about whom I am determined to write about more extensively one of these days, had but one attempt this week...again! One punt, for 37 yards, with no return, downed by his teammates inside the five... what else can you ask for from the guy? Job well done! At this pace, Daniel could well end up with less than 40 attempts in 2010. Been there, done that, only in 1994 when we were 3-7-1, I had 44 punt attempts.

In the early 90s, we were frequently engaged in high-scoring offensive shootouts a la pass-happy Dan Marino back in his Miami Dolphins days, so my punting duties at the time were extremely limited. Punting is a weird science that depends greatly on the playing style of your particular team. In an example of the other extreme, Paul Stonehouse in 1992 had a busy year punting 81 times for our most recent 10-win team. During the 1992 season, it seemed at times that we wanted to have our defense on the field! Paul punted for a then-record 3,427 yards that year! Stanford had never even punted for 3,000 in a season before that. In 2003, we punted for a total 3,687 yards, but to be honest with you, we were punting because sadly, it was our most effective play!

"Go figure" with the analysis of punt attempts...All I know is that I like what I'm seeing this year. Be proud though, "Z", you are the third punter in an impressive line of strong-legged Floridians to take off for Stanford since 1990. We bring the "juice" to the kicking game! Pun intended.

Place-kicker Nate Whitaker (#39) had a fantastic, flawless performance, especially given the fact that he was playing against his former Notre Dame teammates in South Bend. Five field goals in a game tied my own former teammate, John Hopkins, who had made five of six in a remarkable "revenge" victory over Cal back in 1990. Coach Harbaugh made special notice that all of Nate's kicks were "spot on" and "down the middle", so it is clear that he has his focus back. Who knows, Nate may have gotten word that I noticed and mentioned last week that he was pushing most of his kicks last week against Wake Forest and needed to work on his follow-through and maintain the consistency of his "swing". But then again, he's a Stanford student with solid special teams coaching, and he probably self-corrected his issues J.

Missing a couple of 20-yard PAT attempts has little to do with leg strength, it requires accuracy that will accompany consistent ball-striking and improved focus on follow-through. It is an art learned through repetition and practiced focus. Syracuse holds the consecutive extra point conversion record, which stands at 262, accomplished between 1978 to 1989 by a group of seven different Orangemen kickers. Only last week, Missouri's Grant Ressel finally missed a try, leaving the Tigers 10 short of the equaling that 21-year-old NCAA record. 

Stanford's effort on kickoff coverage against the Irish can not be ignored, as it was truly superb. On the occasions that a returner on Notre Dame's side decided that a two-yard deep kick was returnable, they got stuffed at the 15-yard-line. Sometimes returners act impulsively thinking they can make that big play on a return, but when Notre Dame took the ball out of the end zone, Stanford did a fantastic job of getting down the field and making the play. Coach Harbaugh called attention to the special teams overall and I completely agree that the Cardinal took care of business.

In the wake of USC's discrepancies and the Los Angeles media that supports them, our conference still has much respect and I hope that we can manage to win the Oregon game in front of a more wide-awake East Coast audience (8:00 pm EST on ABC) and give some nation-wide credibility back to a rejuvenated Stanford team. Oregon's well-publicized success, combined with our recent rise should attract good attention in the west with the game on at 5:00 pm on ABC. Take notice, the winner should have some meaningful momentum and added confidence. #9 Stanford versus #4 Oregon, fantastic! I know that we are not going to be afraid to put our chin straps on and go back to work on Saturday afternoon.

We are, Stan-ford!

About the Author: Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose 's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He has been a featured expert on www.Kicking.com. Aaron and his wife now make their home in lively Las Vegas, Nevada.

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