Tough Chore

Swirling winds. Bad footing. Poor sod. An opened ended facility facing the water. It's a nightmare combination for kickers, and one Pat McAfee has experienced just once before.

The West Virginia sophomore, who has hit nine of 13 field goals and all 47 PATs this season, once entered a punt, pass and kick combination at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, shared by the Pitt Panthers and the NFL's Steelers. He was 15, and the lone part he recalls was throwing a deep ball eight feet off the marking line in the passing portion.

Perhaps Dissociative Amnesia accounted for the lack of kicking recall. The stadium, right at the convergence of the Steel City's three rivers – the Monongahela and Allegheny meet to form the Ohio – is known as the graveyard of NFL kickers. The winds, blowing into the open-ended, 64,450-seat structure, change direction more often than a John Kerry campaign, and the grass sod wreaks additional havoc with its loose, sandy base that is usually chewed beyond repair at this stage due to use by the professional, collegiate and prep circuits.

"I have never been a fan of northern grass fields," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "You look at a lot of high school games and college games played on grass this time of year, it is tough. It's tough to get traction. It is the same for both teams, but, for us, you'd like to have a fast track because we have fast guys. Heinz Field is different than any other surface we will play on. It gets a lot of use."

Rodriguez once asked Steelers' head coach Bill Cower if he liked the surface, and the 14th-year NFL coach said he did. That might be because the Steelers run a power-based set that relies less on speed. It's a good thing Rodriguez didn't ask place kicker Jeff Reed, whose 11 of 16 field goal made this season rank him 24th out of 30 starting kickers. He has a long of 46, third-worst in the league.

Those stats, and McAfee's inexperience there, could hurt. The Plum, Pa. native, WVU's second-leading scorer behind quarterback Patrick White with 74 points, has never kicked on the surface in an organized game, even in high school; teams have to make the WPIAL finals to play at Heinz, and McAfee's Plum team was not above .500. Pitt counterpart Conor Lee, who played soccer against McAfee in high school when he was at Upper St. Clair, has made nine of 11 tries this season. He has, strangely, made all seven kicks of 30-plus yards – and all three of 40-plus yards – but is zero-for-one inside 19 yards and two-for-three from 20-29 yards. He has not had a kick blocked. The lone home miss was a 19-yarder against the Citadel.

"The thing I heard about Heinz Field is that, in warm-ups it can be blowing right. Then you get out there during the game and it is blowing left," McAfee said. "I am just going to have to go by what I feel. I hope to kick it right down the middle and hope it doesn't move it. All the NFL kickers have said it is like that. I won't change the shoes or anything. I'll just prepare up on the grass field we have so I can get a bit used to the beach they have up there, the sod. Other than that, you can't do much. We don't have Heinz Field here, so I do what I do and when I get up there, I'll test everything out."

McAfee will also likely again handle the punting duties after a solid performance in the 42-24 win over Cincinnati on Saturday. He punted five times for 204 yards, an average of 40.8 yards per kick, all out of the rugby roll-out style. His longest was a 44-yard boot, and he had two fair caught and one that rolled out of bounds inside the 20. He showed uncanny accuracy, putting the ball exactly where West Virginia's coverage unit had converged, and he had no problems getting punts off.

His proven open-field tackling ability is also an asset. McAfee, who did not get even a walk-on offer from Pitt despite being the No. 1 ranked place kicker, will be kicking off to the Big East's leading return team. Lowell Robinson, a 6-0, 195-pound junior, averages 30.1 yards per return on 17 attempts. He has scored once, on a 97-yard runback. Freshman T.J. Porter averages 20.7 yards on seven run backs. The two wideouts are the main threats for the Panthers, who average the league-leading 25.5 yards per return.

"It was never a thought," McAfee said of going to Pitt. "Now, Syracuse with the Dome, maybe. People do anything to get into a dome. But Heinz Field, I dunno. The only reason I would have thought of it is because it was close to home. I was never a huge Pitt fan. It wasn't like I was playing for my dream team or anything. I wasn't really interested."

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