Coach's Corner

The Seattle Seahawks benefited from one of the real flukes of football in their win over the Dallas Cowboys. After 59 minutes of football, they backed into a victory when the Cowboy quarterback, Tony Romo, drops the field goal snap that would have given Dallas the lead with only about a minute left.

It bought them one more week and a heartbreaking OT loss to Chicago on the road.

I've seen it before and I'm positive we'll see it again. Somehow the kicking game always has the biggest surprises in football. Everyone always wants to talk offense and defense is said to win championships, but hardly anyone ever mentions the kicking game when it comes to deciding football games.

My fellow "Husky Honks" on KJR always roll their eyes whenever I'm asked about the "keys" to a game. Somehow I always mention, "Not losing the kicking game", as one of the most important things for the Huskies to win.

Please note that I am not saying you have to necessarily win the kicking game, you just can't let it beat you. Breaking even in the kicking game is paramount to winning. I would also bet that the majority of games won are by the team that does the best in the kicking game snaps.

The kicking game is really very unique and I'm not sure we ever really understood it until we hired Al Roberts from the NFL. Al and I had played together years before with the Seattle Rangers of the old Continental Football League. He coached special teams for a number of pro teams and really brought in and introduced many drills and schemes which we immediately incorporated. Before Al, the Huskies never had a special teams coach as we all took separate parts with the defense handling their side and the offense taking care of theirs.

Offensively, the kick-off return can be one of the most exciting plays in football whereas the field goal and extra points are too often taken for granted as was the case with the Dallas Cowboys. The punt involves both protection and coverage and all aspects have the element of fakes which requires additional practice and execution. Then there is the kick after a safety which is interesting because you can use either your kicker or your punter.

Defensively, covering kickoffs is critical, as was learned by Florida on the opening play of the national championship. Then you have to practice and put in all of the on-sides kicks, bunts, bloops, and squibs. Defensively, the punts offer you a chance to take the offensive with blocks, returns, and blocking a field goal or extra point can often win the game for you.

Even though the number of kicking game snaps rarely adds up to a third of the game, it can certainly win or lose the game. The Seahawks obviously won their game because Romo was not concentrating when the Cowboys decided to kick the field goal to take the lead rather than go for it on 4th and short. His frustration with his head coach was documented on camera and his bobbling of the shot snap was evidence of his lack of concentration.

It's disastrous if you relax during a punt, kickoff, or field goal, yet it always seems like a key play in determining the outcome a ballgame. I think Washington is finally putting the emphasis back on the kicking game. Their overall emphasis on the kicking game is the best it has been in over a decade.

It is a little scary to think that both of the kicking jobs could be manned by "rookies" come next fall. One would have to hope that they are elite kickers and capable of handling the pressures of big time college football with little or no experience. Both kids have obviously shown that they have the leg strength to have been offered scholarships. They are probably the only ones in the class who are being counted on to play immediately.

Sometimes early success in the kicking game can also work against you as was the case with the Ohio State Buckeyes when they returned the opening kickoff for a score, and then went to sleep. It lulled them into a quick case of over confidence. You could see it from the start of their game with Florida that they went flat right after the opening kickoff. Already over confident from all the media hype and publicity, the Buckeyes fell prey to their own success.

I saw the same exact thing happen in one of our games years ago (1986) against BYU. We had lost to them the previous year in Provo and then they had to come to Seattle the following year. What I remember is that the same exact over-confidence set into their team when they took the opening kickoff to the house to start the game. Because we had lost to them the previous year, their players took an attitude right after the kickoff and it came back to haunt them as the game progressed. We pounded them 52-21, holding them to minus 45 yards rushing. They never got back into the game after their kickoff return. Their last two score coming in the fourth quarter against our fourth stringers.

The Ohio State University, playing on the biggest stage, did exactly the same thing. After being told by everyone that they were lock to win the game, they were lulled to sleep by their own success.

The previous year to the BYU game, we also lost to Oregon State, an unheard of thing in those days, by having a punt blocked and then recovered in the end zone to lose 20-21. It was to be the Beavers only win over Washington is a twenty year plus period.

I can also recall us blocking a field goal by the Cougars to force overtime in a thrilling win in 1996, and of course the Huskies were denied a Rose Bowl by missing a field goal at the end of the game in 1982.

I remember beating the Ducks one year when our offense couldn't even get a first down. I think we had three all game, but by blocking kicks as well as returning one for a touchdown, we won.

I also remember playing Notre Dame in 1995 when we screwed up in the kicking game by not covering a receiver – Derek Mayes -- when they went for two. It doesn't take many of these sorts of finishes to realize that one slip up in the kicking game can cost you a ball game. Throughout my career I can count many games that were essentially decided by some sort of kicking game snafu.

That is precisely why the Huskies are now using scholarships to fill their kicking specialist needs. In the old days, we tried to fill all of our kicking jobs thru the walk-on program. That is impossible to do now because the walk-on program has been greatly reduced and kickers get offered scholarships from other schools, so you're not going to get a kid for free any longer.

Case in point was one time we had a really good snapper but Coach Lambright decided not to reward him with a scholarship his second year. Consequently, he quit the team, and we struggled all year long trying to find an adequate snapper. We ended up using three different snappers and none prove good enough. That snapper, Jon Pittman, continued to practice on his own and is currently snapping in the NFL. He has done so for 6 years. Go figure.

The Huskies scholarshipped their long snapper last year, and for a while, probably due to inexperience, he was a little shaky, but eventually Danny Morovick settled down and proved to be a solid addition.

Jared Ballman, the recently signed JC transfer, has at least some college experience but certainly has never kicked on the big stage featuring 75,000 fans. He is going to be playing with an extremely heavy heart this year, as he was involved in a car accident where his vehicle overturned and took the life of his father. At the time of this article, his brother was also critically injured and in a coma. Our prayers go out to the Ballman family.

The other kicker the Huskies have committed is Erik Folk who has a brother who is the kicker at Arizona, so at least he has been close to the full house feel. Both Ballman and Folk can also punt.

Sean Douglas was easily one of the best position players for the Huskies last season and will probably go down as one of the finest punters in Husky history. Replacing him will be critical as well as replacing returner, Marlon Wood, who I think was the finest kick returner the Huskies have had since Joe Jarzyka. Remember Wood's return against the Cougars as well as the Huskies block of a Cougar punt were two to the biggest plays in the Apple Cup. The Huskies won their rival game in large part because they won the kicking game.

The block was really big because it is something that has been missing for almost eight years in Husky football. For some reason the Huskies have not emphasized blocks for a long time despite the fact that many teams were using them against Washington (with success, I might add). Fresno State beat the Huskies their first time with the use of blocks and returns.

Think back to the Dawgs' victory over Fresno State earlier last year -- Caesar Rayford's big paw was the deciding play in that win by the Huskies.

Bob Simmons, the Huskies kicking game coordinator, is methodical and very thorough in his approach. He has a whole notebook just for the kicking teams and they have shown steady improvement in this aspect of the game. I would hope that they are just as aggressive and attacking next season as they were in the Cougar game to end this last one.

To win the kicking game means that you score with it, decisively win the field position game, and not allow your opponent to fool or exploit you. The biggest thing is to not let it beat you.

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