The Huskies had gone three and out on their first drive and this, their second, consisted of a personal foul, a false start, and then Nwangwu's sack.
It was not a good first quarter.
Facing fourth and forever with an offense that was flatter than a three-day old Pepsi, Husky special teams coach Bobby Hauck sent freshman punter Derek McLaughlin into the game into the face of adversity.
"He just told me to not worry about height, distance, or anything. Coach Hauck just said to ‘get it and kick it, get the ball out,'" recalls McLaughlin.
Ben Mahdavi fired the snap came back to him as he stood on the gold "O" of the "CALIFORNIA" painted in the north endzone of Memorial Coliseum in Berkeley. As the Bears send 10 men at him, the freshman from Mesa, Arizona caught the ball and boomed the ball off of his right foot.
The ball went high, spiraled, and once the nose turned over the crowd began to "oooh." Jameel Powell ran backwards to field it and by the time he was able to get his hands on the rocket, Powell was standing inside his 30-yard line and the Huskies had not only avoided potential disaster, they found the spark they needed to get the engine started.
The result was a punt that traveled nearly 90 yards in the air. It went in the books as a school record 74-yard punt, but it was also the catalyst that drew a big sigh of relief from the Husky defense. They would go on to create a turnover that would finally get Washington off of the bus, out of the locker room, and into the game.
"I thought that our punting game was a highlight," said Coach Rick Neuheisel after the game in the media room Saturday. "We did a nice job of winning the field position and I thought Derek McLaughlin was sensational. As a freshman punter I thought he really played well and gave us hope. Certainly that 74-yard punt was huge, it was critical and it got us going."
McLaughlin punted seven times in the ball game and netted an average of 49.7 yards per kick. In addition to the cannon shot, with Washington clinging to a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter, Derek lofted a high spiral that deftly landed inside the Cal 10-yard line and was downed at the Bear 2-yard line by Sam Cunningham. After Cal went three and out, the Husky offense took advantage of the great field position when Rich Alexis punched it in from one yard out for the decisive points in the game.
It was perhaps the best punting performance by a Husky punter since John Werdel, who punted for the National Championship team.
McLaughlin was still a bit in awe of the game he had just completed as he spoke after the game. "It feels like I'm on top of the world. The ball feels like it's a foot wide and you can't miss it," said McLaughlin.
"I guess you could call it a ‘zone,' but to be honest with you I was just going out there and trying to do the best that I could. In warm ups I was nervous because I wasn't kicking well at all. I guess I don't want to kick well in warm ups," he said with a smile."
"It was a great day."
On his school record boot, McLaughlin said that a 30-yard punt would've done just fine in that situation. "Coach Hauck just wanted the ball out of there, to just get the ball out. I guess the rest was all just bonus," said McLaughlin.
"When I first hit it, it came off pretty low so the first thought in my head was, ‘Oh crap.' Then I looked up and I saw the ball just keep carrying. Then I thought, ‘great!'. Then I saw him try to catch it and miss and I saw it bounce. That's when I knew it was great, and it really gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the game."
McLaughlin needed a game like this one. When Michigan burst through the Husky line and blocked his punt for a safety in his first collegiate game, it rattled the freshman.
"After Michigan when I had that punt blocked, I was kind of wavering a bit. I kind of had a mental block going during practice and today just exploded it. It's a great feeling. I'm not saying I'm going to hit an 80-yarder again, but I'll certainly go out there and give it my best shot. Definitely."
Freshman punter gets his kicks in Berkeley
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