"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills

When you walk into your arch-rival's kitchen and build a 45-0 lead after three quarters, there won't be many areas for criticism. It was a merciless, message-sending beat-down of the brash, but beleaguered Bears, nicely complemented by a nearly-flawless effort by Stanford's ever-steady special teams. A challenge looms Saturday vs. an Oregon State team loaded with dangerous return specialists.

"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills


Stanford 48, California 14. The Axe is back! And to the delight of ones of thousands of Cardinal fans, it wasn't even close.

If not for a little bit of Tedfordian trickery by Cal in the game's waning moments, it would have been the biggest margin of victory in Big Game history. It's too bad that the Midwest- and East Coast-bias has prevented us from being the highest-ranked one-loss team in the nation, with our only loss coming on the road at #1-ranked Oregon. It can't get any more convincing than that to me. We are doing the only thing we can, and that is to just keep on winning. We have one more regular season game remaining at home against resilient Oregon State, and then it will be a waiting game to see where and against whom we will be playing when we go bowling for the holidays.

Last week, we predictably predicted that field position and turnovers were going to play major factors in the outcome of The Big Game. Let's see how we did…

On field position, Cal never once started a drive past their 34-yard line, with an average starting point at the 23.8 yard line. Stanford's average drive starting point was the 29.8-yard line. If not for Stanford intercepting a Cal pass at our own five-yard-line (a "statistical outlier" for you math majors), which is fine and dandy because it was a score-saving turnover, we would have started on average from our own 32.6 yard line. We clearly won the battle in that category.

Secondly, there isn't much of a need to discuss the advantage we gained by forcing three Cal turnovers and committing no turnovers on our side. We clearly won the battle won in that category. You don't lose many football games when dominating in these two critical areas.

Special Teams Advantage: Stanford (by a narrow margin)

Although Bryan Anger had a tremendous game punting the football for Cal, averaging 54.3 yards on his three punts, with two of three downed inside the 20. The Bears allowed a damaging 32-yard return by Card sophomore Drew Terrell after Anger angrily out-kicked his coverage by 10 or 15 yards on one occasion. It was a passable effort, but it certainly wasn't enough to counter the steady performance of Nate Whitaker. Giorgio Tavecchio, Cal's kicker went 2-2 on his extra points and had no field goal attempts. Cal came out and did what they could do on Special Teams, but losing by nearly five touchdowns with our kicker and punter executing as well, it's hard not to give Stanford the nod on Saturday.

When Cal's entire team came out for the coin toss, I think it backfired on them. I don't believe that it rattled our team at all, but rather, made them even more intent on focusing on the job at hand…and it showed in all phases of the game.

This is going to be another fun article to write this week, and as promised, I have included a long-promised "Bonus Section" for you at the end on the subject of "Tackling 101 for Kickers and Punters". So, let's get started with the specifics of our Special Teams performance against the Bears!

EXTRA POINTS

Before I analyze Nate's extra-point-kicking performance, let's take note that with Nate's second extra point of the game against Cal, he now stands at 52 (52-55), just one away from tying his own single-season record for most extra points in a season, set last year when he went a whopping 53-53. With Saturday's perfect 6-6,  he cruised past the 49 posted by Mike Biselli during the 1999 Rose Bowl-bound campaign. With a regular-season home game still to play, with Stanford averaging five touchdowns per game, and considering that bowl games are now counted in the official season statistics, Nate easily could pull away from the pack Stanford's all-time list.

On all six of Nate's extra points, #39 produced excellent height and kicked with authority. As I have mentioned in the past, one of the things I like about Nate's extra points is that he kicks them the same as he would a 40-yard field goal. He not chipping or "finessing" his extra points, which is a good thing. The only kick that I saw that wasn't perfect was his fourth try, which hooked to the left more than I would have liked to see. But Nate still knocked it through due to the solid power that he put behind the ball. Wind may have also played a role as well.

FIELD GOALS

Another school record is looming right around the corner. John Hopkins currently holds the single-season record for "most field goals in a season" (19 in 1988). Nate is 16-18 on the season, making 89% of his field goals, which leaves him just three field goals behind with two games left to play. I'll have to get "Emeritus" to check on the single-season points record for a kicker, as Nate has 100 points on the season. He must be getting close if he's not already there. [Ed. Actually, Nate himself produced 101 points in 2009, when he passed Biselli's single-season scoring record for a kicker of 91 - if you don't include Skip Face, who was a TD-scoring back who also kicked PATs. Toby Gerhart scored 172 points last year to pass Tommy Vardell's 120 in 1991 on the all-time single-season scoring list).

There is little doubt the Nate has put his lone two misses of the season behind him, turning in a 2-2 performance with kicks of 29 yards (to get the scoring started), and 41 yards (to end our scoring). Both field goals were booted the same way as he kicked his extra points, solidly and with good height. I would be making things up if I had any constructive criticism about Nate's field goal performance against Cal, and for that matter, during most of the 2010 season. Not only has Nate demonstrated the physical skills to be successful, he has shown great resilience in bouncing back from both of his misses. The psychological aspect is in many ways as important, if not more important, than the physical skills at the FBS level.

Jeff Reed, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and "Mr. Reliable" in Pittsburgh's most recent Super Bowl victories, just got released last week after a few bad outings. This goes to show that even one of the most physically-gifted kickers can lose his starting job if he isn't able to keep his mind focused on the task at hand.

KICKOFFS

Nate had another busy day at the office with nine kick-offs on the day. On extra points and field goals, #39 has been very consistent throughout the entire season. On kickoffs, I have been pleased to see Nate getting better with each game, as I felt that this was an area in which he needed to improve the most. Our kick-off coverage unit as a whole has been solid, not giving up the big game-changing plays.

Out of nine kick-offs on Saturday, Nate kicked three touchbacks and our coverage unit did not allow Cal to get past the 34-yard- line on any of their six returns. With the exception of Nate's second kick-off in which he kicked too low on the ball resulting in a short kick to the eight-yard-line, his kickoffs were as follows: touchback, one-yard-line, one-yard-line, four-yard-line, four-yard-line, touchback, three-yard-line and touchback, in that order. Nate had a good combination of hang-time and distance on his kick-offs, giving the Cardinal's coverage unit time to get down the field to make plays. We are going to need another good performance out of this unit next weekend against Oregon State, as they are averaging 26.3 yards per return as a team this season (second in the Pac-10). It should be a nice motivating factor for Special teams Coordinator Brian Polian as he prepares his coverage crews this week..

PUNTS

Well, we got a chance to take a look at David Green for the first time this season. I was watching the game from the South Point Casino and couldn't hear the audio with all the other college football games going on, so I'm not sure if Daniel Zychlinski was hurt - it certainly didn't appear so - or if Coach Harbaugh decided to make a change. We figure it was likely the case of this having been David Green's final Big Game and Coach called his number on what would be the Cardinal's only punt of the game, coming in the fourth quarter with the game already well in hand. I can't remember a team ever punting as few times as we have this season. It's insane! I try to beef up this section every week, and every week the same thing happens. We hardly ever punt!  But hey, that is after all, a very good thing.

We'll do our best to analyze David Green's lone punt of the game. Green's only punt traveled 35 yards with no return, and down inside Cal's 20. Mission accomplished. The one thing that I will say about David, having watched him punt some last year, is that he does possess a very smooth follow-through. I can't say that I have seen him punt across his body at all. He does a good job at following through down the field. On a further positive note, it is nice to know that we have two very capable punters on our Stanford roster. Oregon State is third in the Pac-10 at 15.2 yards per return, so good hang-time and the forcing of fair catches will be key to the Cardinal's Special Teams play this week.

The only thing I'm not sold on is the new wave of having three blockers in front of the punter for punt protection. When I was playing, Oregon State was the only team I saw using this formation, and now I am seeing it everywhere. The reason I don't like it is because it invites a few more rushers through and can be a bit distracting for a punter to feel so much pressure coming through to his three punt-block protectors. Purdue uses the three-blocker formation, and Michigan State managed to get a man through to block the punt inside the Purdue five-yard-line, allowing them to get the go-ahead touchdown and win the game.

BONUS SECTION: "TACKLING 101 FOR KICKERS AND PUNTERS"

Here is the long awaited "Bonus Section" on tackling strategies for kickers and punters that I have been promising most of the year. I wanted to write this piece in an article where our kicker or punter was pressed into tackling duty, but it simply never happened. Again, that's a good thing, and kudos to our Special Teams cover units for making sure the opposition never broke off a huge return. So before I run out of games to impart my modest tackling knowledge, here we go - Class is now in session!

Most of you football fans have seen kick returns or punt returns for touchdowns, and have either laughed or grimaced at how silly or tentative the last line of defense looks when trying to save that touchdown return (i.e. the kicker or the punter). Admittedly, a lot of times it doesn't look pretty. And in the times where a kicker or punter does make manage to make a tackle, the returner that was tackled often gets an earful of teasing taunts from their teammates when watching the game film the next week.

Having had some experience, I developed a highly proprietary personal strategy on how to give oneself the best chance at making a touchdown-saving tackle as a punter or kicker. Yes indeed, there was one memorable occasion during my freshman year at Stanford where I was one of those silly-looking kickers whiffing helplessly on a tackle, and I bet my cleats are still somewhere stuck in the mud in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

USC speedster and future NFL wide receiver and return specialist Curtis Conway returned one of my kick-offs 100 yards for a touchdown. Luckily for me, it was called back, but not before he made me look absolutely foolish. Having broken through our coverage, Curtis approached me and I dug in waiting to react to his movement. Mistake! He's coming at me on the run and I am stationary. By the time I figured out what had happened, Curtis had given me one juke, I took the bait and he changed directions on me and was gone like a flash. I wasn't even a mild inconvenience for him. So here is what I learned…

You always want to have faith in your coverage team to make the stop, but as a kicker or punter, you must always assume that you might be part of the play after you kick the ball. On kick-offs, I liked to settle in at around midfield, always looking left and right to make sure one of the other team's blockers wasn't waiting to tee off on me with a huge block in my blind spot. If I see that the return man may break a big return and the play is coming to me, it is up to me to dictate what "I" want the returner to do. When the returner is about 15 yards from me (this gives me time to break out into a run if I have to chase him down), I try to make him go to the short side of the field so I can push him out of bounds if I'm unable to tackle him inbounds. The sideline acts as another defender for you, so try not to get caught attempting a tackle in the middle of the field.

You have to outsmart or "out-think" the returner. In order to accomplish this, when he hits that 15-yard mark, pretend that you have been faked out by biting in the direction that you "DO NOT" want him to go. This will surprise the returner in most cases, and now they are the ones that are taking your bait. Once you have him committed to going in the direction you want him to go, it is no longer a guessing game. Now it's up to you to turn on your afterburners, take a proper angle while running back, and you stand half a chance at meeting the returner at about your own 30-20 yard line. It still is a big return, but at least you are making their offense come out and earn their points.

Remember, don't wait for him to make the move before you react. It will be too late. Sell yourself that he has faked you out, when you really know all along what direction he is going to choose. Take it from me, Chuck Levy of Arizona fell for my fake and I was able to cut him off and save a touchdown. Always good to think ahead, but let's hope our specialists don't have to employ these techniques for a very long time.

Until next week. Go Cardinal! Beat Beaver!

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.


Do you have a "premium" subscription to The Bootleg? If not, then you are seriously missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest, broadest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!


The Bootleg Top Stories