To close out the season, Cougar placekicker Erik Powell made good on 9 of his final 10 field goal tries -- including two in the Holiday Bowl. And he also just happened to tear the leather off the football while punting in San Diego.
Against Minnesota, Powell punted six times, averaging 45.5 yards per boot, and drilling a long of 58. That is no fluke of a trend line. In his only other punt of the season -- in the Apple Cup -- he unleashed one 68 yards out of his own end zone.
Punting production of that magnitude over a full season would have placed the Vancouver, Wash., product and one-time walk on No. 7 nationally.
His punting excellence and late-season field goal surge no doubt sends the fourth-year junior into the off season with high hopes for a banner senior campaign in 2017. Given the way his season started -- no makes on his first five field goal attempts -- it stands as one of the great, unsung redemption stories of the 2016 Pac-12 season.
So now comes the most pressing question of the off season: why wasn’t Powell punting all year long, given how well he did against the Dawgs and Gophers?
WSU special teams coach Eric Mele told CF.C after the game (and back in fall camp, too) that having one player handle kickoffs, placekicking AND the punting over the course of a full season greatly increases the chances of overtaxing the player, and that in turn is likely to lead to diminishing returns in all three areas.
But there’s also no reason to hold anything back in a bowl game, Mele noted. Once the final seconds tick off in a bowl game, it's smooth sailing till spring ball.
“The plan in the bowl game was to use both Erik and Kyle Sweet, but I made decision to keep using Powell given his results,” said Mele.
By the way, Sweet, a leading candidate to start at one of the inside wide receiver spots in 2017, handled the bulk of WSU’s punting chores this season and by a wide margin (32 punts, to Zach Charme’s 8 and Powell’s 7).
Now consider this punting nugget on Sweet: only 10 of his punts were returned by the opposition the entire season.
No, punting isn’t as compelling an Xs and Os conversation as offense or defense but in listening to Mele, there is no shortage of strategy that goes into it. And it explains why WSU used three punters.
Powell and Sweet are rugby style kickers – but Powell is left-footed and Sweet is a righty. Meanwhile, Charme is a traditional straight-ahead punter. That allowed Mele to force Minnesota to prepare for rugby-right, rugby-left and traditional.
By the way, Minnesota only returned 2 of 8 WSU punts … for a total of three yards.
Mele said he’s always liked Powell as a punter – he nearly awarded him the punting job in 2015 until Powell won the starting kicker competition.
Mele won’t suddenly change strategy in 2017 and use Powell in the punting game as much as he did in the bowl. But don’t expect him to wait until the Apple Cup this next season to use Powell at punter either.
“Spoiler alert: You'll see some more of Powell next season,” said Mele.
NOTABLE NOTE: WSU and NFL legend Jason Hanson is remembered as one of the all-time great place-kickers, but he also handled the punting chores for two seasons while at WSU. He wasn't too shabby either, earning all-Pac-10 and All-America honors along the way. If memory serves, that makes him the only Coug two earn All-American honors at two different positions. Hanson was on the ballot for the 2017 College Football Hall of Fame class but in results announced Monday morning he was not selected for induction.