"Just For Kicks" with Aaron Mills

The Bootleg's Vegas-based Special Teams analyst Aaron Mills breaks down our various unit performances against Duke and USC. Why did we struggle to kick field goals that could have helped break Saturday's game open? Lots of explanations, no excuses. Read on for a bonus interview with Stanford Special Teams Coach Pete Alamar.

"Just For Kicks" with Aaron Mills



A Win For The Ages


I have been a part of some sensational victories at Stanford (victories over Notre Dame in South Bend 1990 & 1992) and have seen many since. But I don't think that I have ever felt so satisfied after a Cardinal victory than I did after our 21-14 victory over USC last Saturday. I am going to take a moment to break out of Special Teams mode before I hit my regular column.

Our football team started the season ranked in the bottom half of the Top 25 after finishing the last two seasons ranked in the Top 10.

Granted, we lost Andrew Luck to the NFL, but this almost always happens to Stanford. Whenever we have a successful season, the pollsters typically drop us down a few notches in the polls the following pre-season, making us prove that the previous season was no fluke and that having a winning program can be sustainable.


As coach David Shaw said last week, "We don't want to be seen as a 'flash-in-the-pan' program." The culture of winning football games on The Farm should no longer be a surprise, but rather an annual expectation.

The critics yammer, "Yeah, Stanford has a great defense this year, but there is no Andrew Luck. You better be content with 7 or 8 wins this year and call the season a success."


Week One: Stanford 20 San Jose State 17


Critics are feeling validated, "This is what happens when you lose your starting quarterback." The rest of the teams on Stanford's schedule are licking their chops, sensing vulnerability. Duke now feels they have a chance to win in week two as many people feel that Stanford should be out of the Top 25.


Week Two: Stanford 50 Duke 13


Critics still not convinced, "Stanford showed some signs of waking up, but hey, after all it's only Duke! USC is coming to town set on revenge. Matt Barkley is a Heisman frontrunner and he came back for his senior season to win a National Championship and finally beat Stanford."


Week Three: Stanford 21 USC 14


Critics waking up, "Stanford took it to USC this week and it's time to take this team a bit more seriously now."

Enough about the critics. For me this victory over USC felt better than the "Biggest Upset in College Football History," when we beat USC in Los Angeles in 2007 as 42-point underdogs. The nation expected very little from that Stanford team and USC was caught napping, certainly very good reasons for satisfaction after our historic victory.

However, this 2012 Stanford team was a group that everyone outside the Cardinal family was trying to push back out of the national scene. Our two-year run was great, but the primary reason behind our success has now graduated and moved on. USC is off of probation...Oregon is primed for another run at the national title…what a glorious Pac-12 Championship game that would be…yada, yada, yada.


I don't know about any of you, but have you ever felt like you COMPLETELY DOMINATED an opponent while only winning by seven points? The Stanford Defense and overall team physicality simply wore down the Trojans in the end and it was just a matter of time before the Cardinal would get into the end zone two more times for the winning margin.


I watched the game from the South Point Hotel and Casino in my hometown of Las Vegas and 95% of the fans watching were for USC. The first half of the game was non-stop jabbering, but as Stanford scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, I quietly raised my arms skyward and the USC fans were in stunned disbelief. I did not hear a peep out of them, not even to offer up excuses as to why they lost (typical of USC fans) to invalidate Stanford's dominance. Yes, it was one of those games!


For those of you who read my weekly column, you will know that I called the San Jose State game a fortuitous wake-up call for Stanford and that was the best thing that could have happened to us. Learning a lesson and still getting a win out of it. Now the message has never been more clear…the rest of our opponents now have our name circled on their calendars. WE MUST PLAY PHYSICAL FOOTBALL EVERY GAME! I don't want to see us play down to our competition on weeks where we are clear favorites on paper. Our physical play allowed us to overcome plenty of mistakes in the USC game.


That felt good to get out! Now let's move on to the Special Teams which was a mixed bag of good plays and some poor execution.


Extra Points & Field Goals


Stanford 0, USC 0


Missed 47-yard field goal. I addressed this situation (snapping) with Coach Alamar last week as an area of concern. Kicking a field goal is a three-part process (with blocking being an obvious component). (1) Reed Miller's snap, which essentially skipped off the ground. (2) Daniel Zychlinski's hold, which was superb under the circumstances. (3) Jordan Williamson's kick, which he hit extremely well with great height and plenty of distance. Because of the bad snap, "Z" was mainly concerned with simply getting the hold down for Jordan. The hold was very good with the exception of the laces facing left. I'm not making excuses for Jordan, so pay attention. Footballs have a tendency to drift, over distance, towards the direction that the laces are pointed (right or left). When the laces are facing the kicker, there is no sweet spot for good contact, making longer field goals harder to manage with getting enough distance. Short field goals will not be as affected by this position of the laces. Bottom line, if the laces were out, Jordan's kick goes right down the middle. Don't believe me? Watch the replay…they have an excellent back view of the snap, hold and kick.


(ASIDE: If you were like me, that missed field goal felt so deflationary at the time. It wasted the momentum established by Ty Montgomery's tremendous 64-yard kickoff return. I was also thinking two steps ahead, immediately seeing USC with the ball and knowing that they were receiving the second-half kickoff.)


Stanford 7, USC 7


Extra point good. Excellent snap, hold and kick. Great job by Reed Miller putting the earlier field goal attempt behind him.


USC 14, Stanford 7


Missed 23-yard field goal. This field goal I put squarely on the shoulders of Jordan. The snap and hold looked spot on. Williamson kicked a good ball…but he kicked it exactly the same way he came through it. The ball was spotted on the left upright, and I would suggest that he did not properly address that in his set up angle.


USC 14 Stanford 7


Blocked 51-yard field goal. Jordan gets a pass on this kick as well. USC got a strong rush around the edge on our right which stretched out our field goal protection on that side. T.J. McDonald was able to slip through the gap inside the right side and block the field goal attempt. We must not allow for gaps/creases in our protection!


Stanford 14 USC 14


Extra point good. A repeat of the first extra point. Very good all around with the kick right down the middle. I found myself mostly focused on the snap portion of the extra point than anything else. I do have faith in Reed, though, to get his consistency down.


Stanford 21 USC 14


Extra point good. Good snap, good hold and nice follow through by Jordan. The finishing touches!




First Punt:


37-yard punt, fair catch at the 50-yard line. Reed Miller delivered a good snap and "Z" had nice hang time on the punt. Good overall execution.


Second Punt:


45-yard punt, out of bounds at the USC 42-yard line. It appeared that Daniel punted the ball a little bit on the outside of his foot, resulting in a lower hang-time punt. But it worked out as the USC returner was not able to field the punt as the ball hit at about 38 yards, rolling an additional seven yards and out of bounds.


Third Punt:


67-yard punt for a touchback. "Z" ripped this punt at a time when we really needed it. In a tight game, field position was a major factor. I don't mind a touchback in this situation as pinning USC inside the 20 on this particular play would not be a realistic outcome. 47-yard net punt…great job!


Fourth Punt:


41-yard punt for a touchback. This was the only punt that we really missed on. Daniel hit a nice, high punt that hit at around the five-yard line and carromed into the end zone. Alex Carter did a great job getting down the field to down the punt inside the five-yard line, but was standing in the end zone when the ball hit and was not in the proper position to make a play on the ball. I'm sure they will practice field awareness during special teams drills this week.


Fifth Punt:


22-yard punt, fair catch at the 11-yard line. "Z" hit another rugby style, "end-under-end" punt that pinned USC nicely inside their 15 yard line. It is one of those punts that doesn't pad the stats, but accomplishes EXACTLY what the Cardinal needs in this situation. Great job!




First Kickoff


Jordan hit a high kick to the left corner to the six-yard line and the cover team held the return to 19 yards. A "regular day at the office" play. Nothing bad, nothing spectacular. Good job.


Second Kickoff


Williamson's kickoff was high and fielded at the one. The cover unit did an excellent job limiting the return to just 12 yards, even with a holding penalty on USC. The downside to this return was a 15-yard personal foul on Wayne Lyons, giving USC the ball starting at the 22 yard line. A great effort somewhat squandered by a preventable penalty.


Third Kickoff


Jordan hit a nice deep left kick for a touchback. That was much needed, as Stanford just tied the game at 14 and we didn't give USC an opportunity to cut into our momentum with a big return.


Fourth Kickoff


Good deep left kickoff but the Stanford cover unit did not do a very good job of keeping Marqise Lee contained into the sideline. He managed to get to the middle of the field, resulting in a return to the 30-yard line.


Final Notes


Daniel Zychlinski averaged 42.4 yards per punt on five attempts, while USC averaged 42.5 yards per punt on six attempts. USC had so much respect for Drew Terrell on punt returns that they intentionally punted low line drives that were on the ground well before reaching Terrell, giving him virtually no chance for any returns. Their strategy was effective, but I wouldn't recommend punting in this fashion as there is no guarantee that you will always receive favorable rolls.


Jordan Williamson is now 10-11 on extra points and 5-9 on field goals. Williamson and the rest of the kicking unit will look to put this game behind them and get back on track. Despite going 0-3 on field goals against USC, the Cardinal still won the game which should make moving forward much easier.


Ty Montgomery returned all three of Stanford's kickoffs for a 29-yard average, including a 64-yard kick return to start the game. Stanford had the edge in starting field position over the Trojans, beginning their drives at the 36.3 yard line versus the Trojans starting from the 25.5 yard line.


I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "likely" game saving play by Ronnie Harris on a fake field goal by USC while the Cardinal was trailing 14-7. Harris did an excellent job a separating the USC receiver from the ball in the end zone on a well thrown Matt Barkley pass. Without that play, there's no telling what happens from that point on.


The Cardinal will look to clean up the short-snapping, line-blocking and kicking aspects of the PAT/FG unit during the bye week in preparation for Stanford's first road test of the season against the Washington Huskies (2-1). Washington just came off of a big 52-13 victory versus an overmatched Portland State team.


Stanford vs. UW" September 27th at 6:00 pm PST on ESPN! GO CARDINAL!


Bonus: Duke post-game interview with Stanford Special Teams Coach Alamar


Special Teams Solid, Tremendous Team Improvement


The cross-country rivalry with my best friend from childhood (Duke alum) has been put to bed once again with the Cardinal reigning supreme. In fact, this win makes it four in row over Duke for my bragging rights.


2011 Football: Stanford 44 Duke 14


2000 Basketball: Stanford 84 Duke 83


1999 Basketball: Stanford 80 Duke 79 (OT).


Yes, we also have Duke's number in Men's Basketball!


The Cardinal definitely paid heed to that "fortuitous" wake-up call I mentioned last week with a convincing rout over Duke 50-13. Being the perfectionists we are though…there is always room for improvement. Minus a couple of plays, the Stanford special teams notched a solid performance for the second straight week, which included putting six points on the board courtesy of a Drew Terrell 76-yard punt return for a touchdown. Terrell's touchdown "kicked-off" the scoring and set the tempo early on.


Due to the television coverage being limited to the Bay Area and the Carolinas, I tuned in to KZSU for the play-by-play action. This week I spoke again with Stanford Special Teams Coach Alamar to fill the fans in on the finer points of the Duke game.


Congratulations on another fine performance against Duke, Coach.


Q: You mentioned that your style of coaching puts an emphasis both on taking away points and on putting points on the board. We accomplished one of those last week. Can you break down Drew Terrell's punt return for a touchdown and explain to the readers what made that play happen?


A: On that particular return, we had what we call a "return check" where we will call right or left return while on the field depending on how their punt team lines up. We felt that we had an opportunity to make a big play last week given that Duke's punter (Will Monday) tends to drive his punts deep with lower hang-time. Drew Terrell did an excellent job making the first Duke cover guy miss and Joe Hemschoot had a nice block to help spring Drew out to the right toward the sideline. Once on the outside, Drew only had to contend with the punter and he made him miss and we had a touchdown. Any time we can start a game by pinning our opponent inside the 20-yard line on kick coverage, get a three-downs-and-out followed by a punt return for a touchdown…it provides our team with a big boost being up 7-0 in under two minutes with our offense yet to take the field.


Q: We missed an extra point and the announcers alluded to a bad snap. Can you take us through that play?


A: Reed Miller's snap was a bit low and the timing was disrupted. Both were factors in the missed extra point.


Q: Regarding our snapping, it appeared that some snaps on placements were a bit low against San Jose State. How has this issue being addressed?


A: Reed Miller is a freshman and this is only his second game on a college football field. We have put him in a tough situation having to develop so quickly, but he is making strides and we will look to him for more consistency going forward. We are also developing some other guys in this area to give us more depth as needed.


Q: Did you determine what happened on Jordan's missed 38-yard field goal?


A: Jordan jumped the snap (started his approach to the ball) a little early and his plant foot was too close to the ball. By having his plant foot too close to the ball, he was unable to get his hips square to the uprights and pushed the kick to the right.


Q: "Z" turned in another great game with the punting duties. Can you comment on how he has managed what you have asked of him thus far this season?


A: "Z" has been doing an excellent job for us so far this season. We are a directional punting team and like to use the sidelines to pin our opponents' returners down. I don't like to put any significant emphasis on gross punting average. What I care about is our net punting average (gross punt minus the return yardage). We will accept a net punting average of 38 yards and thus far we are averaging over 40 yards net per punt.


(ASIDE: A majority of Dan's punts this year have gone for fair catches, which is the ideal scenario on punt team.)


Q: You mentioned that special teams is a unit where we could be seeing some freshmen make an early impact on the football field. I keep hearing the name "Zach Hoffpauir" called as part of the action. Can you tell us a little bit more about Zach?


A: Zach has done a tremendous job for us on special teams up to this point. Ryan Hewitt has been out of the lineup with an injury for the first two games and Zach took over the duties of being Dan Zychlinski's personal protector on punt coverage (big responsibility). He has also been making some plays for us on kickoff coverage. Blake Martinez and Drew Madhu are a couple of other young guys that have made an early impact on special teams.


Q: Speaking of young guys, Alex Carter showed signs of improvement this past week with some nice kick returns. Could this be the start of Alex becoming the premier kick returner much like Drew Terrell did on punt returns as a freshman?


A: It is too early to make any predictions. I will say that Alex had a fine game returning kicks against Duke and made tremendous strides since the San Jose State game. He had a great day at the office and it's nice to know that we have depth at this position. You will still see Ty Montgomery involved with the kick return team.


Q: Can you take us through the onside kick that Duke attempted and how we handled it? Oregon has had success against us with the surprise onside kick, so it's good to be reminded by Duke that it can happen at any time.


A: We thought that the onside kick was a possibility and had discussed it on the sidelines prior to taking the field to start the second half. Ideally, we coach our players to try and field the onside kick before it goes 10 yards if they can. The opposing team cannot make contact with you until the ball has traveled 10 yards, so if we can make a play on the ball before 10 yards, it gives us a better chance to more safely gain possession. In this case, Joe Hemschoot happened to dive over the ball and Jarek Lancaster ended up digging it out. We do work on onside kicks and teaching our front line on kick return to make sure the ball is kicked deep before retreating back to set up their blocks.


Q: Feedback question from the fans. Do you ever discuss with your players, how special teams prowess can be a tipping factor in whether or not you make an NFL squad?


A: I focus primarily on everyone being the best they can be on special teams for the purpose of the here and now. When I do discuss matters down the road with players, it is in a one-on-one situation with individuals that have started getting more playing time with the offensive and defensive units. I remind them not to forget about their roots in special teams, because most of those guys still have roles on special teams. And yes, I have intimated that special teams prowess in addition to their role on offense or defense and can be the deciding factor on whether or not they will make an NFL squad.

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