"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills
Stanford 37, USC 35. I must say that this is an especially exciting article for me to write this week. When it mattered most, "Nate hit it straight." Despite missing a key extra point at 34-28 in an offensive display by both teams (his third missed PAT of the season), Nate Whitaker (#39) had a chance to redeem himself by connecting on his 15th straight field goal for the game-winner in a 37-35 victory, vaulting us to a 5-1 record. I am glad we have had a mid-season bye week to rest our players, and it give me a chance to recuperate from the drama of the USC game as well.
What a memorable nail-biter we were treated to, an outcome that gave Stanford a third win in the past four games against our much-loathed rivals from USC. This close-fought battle was decided at the end by a total team effort, ending with the Special Teams and sweet redemption for Nate after his missed PAT in the fourth quarter, when to the delight of the packed-house home crowd, he connected on his dramatic game-winning field goal as time expired.
As I was watching the game unfold, I was thinking that the game would be decided by the last team that had the football at the end of the game. And as fate would have it, USC gave Andrew Luck (#12) and the Stanford offense a little over a minute to get down the field and put Nate into position to make that deciding kick.
So, now it's time to break down what the Special Teams units did throughout the game to give more insight into where we succeeded and where we need to improve. I'll start with the most active part of Special Teams last Saturday, the kicking game.
On Nate's five PAT attempts, I noticed that he was pushing his kicks again this week. He had excellent elevation and drive to his kicks, but the key to accuracy is all in the squaring of your hips on contact with the football. Ultimately, I don't know if the Special Teams Coach tried to correct his pushing of kicks that may have caused Nate to overcompensate on the crucial missed PAT, but while looking at the kick on TV, I noticed his plant foot was too close to the ball and he overcompensated which resulted in the hook off of his ankle. When squarely hitting the ball on a kick, you will connect on your inner shoelaces with your toe pointed outside of the football, giving maximum impact and accuracy. If you "crowd" the ball, the kick can easily go awry. All in all, Nate needs to drive straight through on his kicks and not fall away from the ball, which causes his kicks to drift to the right.
I happened to watch the post-game press conference and Nate confirmed my thoughts on why that PAT was hooked. Thank goodness that everyone calmed down when the chips were on the table and Nate looked very poised to strike the game-winning kick. The snap was perfect, the hold was down by Daniel Zychlinski (#36) and there was no doubt that the kick was good from the start. Here I am, a former Stanford kicker, proud to see that there was perfect execution.
When you're in an offensive slugfest, there isn't much punting. "Emeritus" is going to get me the numbers on Daniel's punt attempts (just one this past game), but I think he may well set a single-season record for lowest punt attempts in modern Stanford history for a full-time punter.
My good friend and old teammate Paul Stonehouse punted 11 times in one game against Texas A&M back in 1992….very busy day for him and almost the same output as Daniel has had in six games. In my analysis of Daniel's work up to this point is that he is doing an admirable job of holding for Nate and is punting for distance.
Daniel had one punt for 54 yards this past week, but he needs to make sure that he doesn't "out-kick" the coverage. I would rather see him punting 40 yards with longer hang time, all for fair catches. Fast and athletic punt-return specialists are a Special Teams Coach's worst nightmare when they have 10 yards of vision to see the blocks after fielding the punt. I'm definitely not knocking the 54-yard punt by Daniel, but they got 15 on the return and you would rather have a no-return situation if you can help it. It will only be a matter of time when the opposition breaks one. Believe me, I've laced a few low-drivers and had to clean up my own mess if someone broke through.
Kickoffs and Returns
For starters, Chris Owusu (#81) had a game-changing return of 88 yards when we needed it in this showdown of offenses. I'm glad to see him back from injury and having this weekend off will be good for Chris to rest up and get closer to 100%.
On another note, Nate Whitaker was much-improved on his kickoffs, producing a few touchbacks this past week. If I was the Special Teams Coach at Stanford, I would prefer touchbacks in any scenario. Put the ball on the 20 and see what the other offense can do. I've seen too many mistakes and moving parts when returns happen, so it's best just to get the touchback and put your defense on the field.
Additionally, I noticed that Nate was very focused on his kick-off follow through this week and that is what he needs to do on all of his kicks (meaning field goals and PATs alike). Sometimes it's easy to let your technique slip. It has to be "constantly consistent". I learned that the hard way. Nate is making all of his field goals, but the PATs have been a bit of an adventure this season.
Notes for Washington State
As far as Special Teams preparation for a 1-5, but still dangerous Washington State team, we need to keep up the tempo that we have established this year. Wazzu tested Oregon earlier this year, and we can't afford a letdown when 6-1 is well within the Cardinal's grasp. I must admit that our football team has played seemingly over our heads when we have been big underdogs, pulling off some major upsets in the past. But on the other hand, we have been guilty of getting into a lull during games that we should easily win by keeping our underdog opponents needlessly in the game. So far, this season seems special, and I sense a new "no-let-down" attitude with our football program.
Bonus "Tackling" Teaser
The little "bonus" section to come will attempt to explain the art of tackling for kickers and punters. Occasionally, we are needed. I will write about it next week just to get more information out to our Bootleg members about one of the less conspicuous aspects of a kicker‘s and punter‘s duties. Everyone that plays football should know how to tackle someone, but it is a bit different for kickers and punters. You might be surprised to know how it's done. Until next week then - let's get ready to de-claw the Cougs!
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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