Alabama kickers afforded rare shot at redemption in BCS title game
NEW ORLEANS -- For a kicker, Cade Foster was an unusually popular interview subject at Friday's BCS National Championship Game media day. Ironically, it's because of a night he could not have been less popular in the state of Alabama, back on Nov. 5, when Foster and teammate Jeremy Shelly combined to miss four field goals -- including Foster's 52-yard attempt in overtime -- in a 9-6 loss to No. 1 LSU.
"It's done. It's in the past," said the sophomore from Texas. "Until someone invents a time machine, I'm not going to worry about it because I can't do anything about it."
Actually, he might.
Thanks to the Crimson Tide's rise back to No. 2 and the rematch it's afforded them Monday night against the Tigers, there's a possibility Foster or Shelly could get the opportunity to not only redeem himself but earn his team an even bigger victory. You can bet a whole bunch of similarly unfortunate kickers around the country will be rooting for them.
Last-second field goals -- some successful, but the majority not -- played an unprecedented role in both the 2011 national title race and several major bowl games. On Nov. 12 against TCU, Boise State's Dan Goodale missed a 39-yarder wide right as time expired, the second straight year a missed field goal ruined the Broncos' hopes of a perfect season. Six nights later, Oklahoma State's Quinn Sharp barely missed a potential game-winning 37-yarder, after which Iowa State knocked off the second-ranked Cowboys in overtime. The next night, No. 4 Oregon's Alejandro Maldonado missed a 37-yarder that would have sent the Ducks' game against USC to overtime.
"You can't help but see that if some kicks had gone differently, it could have changed the outcome of who played for the national championship and who won the Heisman," said Oklahoma State's Sharp. "If Alabama wins that game [against LSU], they probably go undefeated and Trent Richardson wins the Heisman. A lot of crazy things happened."
Sharp, a Lou Groza Award finalist who made 20 of 23 attempts on the season, got his own bit of redemption last Monday when his chip-shot 19-yard field goal in overtime lifted the Cowboys to a 41-38 Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford. However, his joy came in part thanks to the misery of Cardinal counterpart Jordan Williamson, who hooked both a 35-yard attempt at the end of regulation and a 43-yarder in overtime.
Earlier that day, Georgia's Blair Walsh -- the SEC's all-time leading scorer -- missed a 42-yard overtime attempt that would have beaten Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, then had a 47-yarder blocked on the game's final play. In the next night's Sugar Bowl, Virginia Tech substitute Justin Myer made four attempts against Michigan but missed his fifth, in overtime, setting up Brendan Gibbons' game-winning 37-yarder for the Wolverines.
With their unique shared bond and sometimes distant relationship with their offensive and defensive teammates, college kickers are a tight-knit fraternity. It pains them when one of their brethren suffers their worst nightmare.
"Watching the bowl games these past couple weeks, you feel for those guys," said LSU's Drew Alleman, whose 25-yard overtime kick won the Nov. 5 Alabama game. "You know what they're going through. I've been there, both places. I've missed a game-winner, I've made a couple game-winners. If you're friends with them, you send them a text saying, 'Look, you're going to move on. You're going to have another kick, you've got to be ready."
All these crucial missed field goals have caused bewilderment for many fans. Why, they ask, do high-profile programs struggle to recruit a reliable kicker?
Chris Sailer, a former UCLA kicker who's worked with most of the aforementioned names at one of his national kicking camps for prospective college recruits, takes exception to that generalization.
"You have to look at percentages," said Sailer. "You look at someone like Jordan Williamson, he's [12-of-15] coming in. He's been pretty good, but he's going to miss a kick once in a while, it's a matter of when. When he misses at the end of the game, then he's no longer a 'reliable' kicker. The reality is he just had a bad game."
If anything, coaches are placing greater emphasis on recruiting kickers than ever before. The days of enlisting a walk-on from the soccer team are largely in the past. Most teams have at least one kicker on scholarship at any time, if not more, and, thanks to high school combines like Sailer's, they have hard data to go by when making their evaluations. Sharp, Williamson, Walsh and Foster all made Sailer's "Top 12" national rankings in high school and garnered interest from multiple schools.
But there's also unquestionably a mental side to kicking that doesn't show up in combine results. "They say we're head cases," said Sharp of his notoriously routine-driven brethren. Every kicker has his own strategy for calming nerves. Asked after the Sugar Bowl what he thinks about prior to a big kick, Michigan's Gibbons humorously replied: "Brunette girls." But any honest kicker will tell you anxiety sets in the bigger the implications.
"There's just some kicks that get in your head," said Sharp. "You've got 70,000 people screaming in your head, you've got one chance to change the tide completely. Some guys get in a zone and block it out mentally, but that [Stanford] freshman hadn't been in a pressure situation. Mine was a chip shot, I felt pretty comfortable, but if it had been a little longer, I probably would have had some nerves in my stomach."
Alabama's duo declined to rehash their mindset that November night in Tuscaloosa, but they certainly weren't immune to the stakes of the purported Game of the Century. They're also not professional kickers, and in fairness, the Tide's offense did them no favors that night.
Foster, whom Nick Saban employs on kickoffs and long-range field-goal attempts (42 yards and beyond), missed from 44, 50 and 52 and made a 46-yarder. Shelly, who came in after Foster's first two misses, had a 49-yard attempt blocked and made a 34-yarder. A sack, an illegal substitution penalty and a Trent Richardson dropped screen pass helped push back Foster's ill-fated overtime kick.
"What we've tried to do with our guys is say, look, you had a bunch of low-percentage kicks in that game," said Saban. "We certainly have confidence they will do well in this game because they've done well in other games all year long."
Indeed, Shelly has made 16 of 20 attempts on the season, including 4 of 5 since the LSU game. Still, he's known almost entirely for his role in the Nov. 5 loss.
"It comes with the position," he said. "Whether it be a game where you have to hit three field goals to win, or whether you don't kick a field goal all game and it comes down to your foot in the last second, you're going to be in the spotlight. You're either going to be the hero or the goat."
Foster, with his focus on long attempts, is just 2 of 9 on the season. "What Cade is being asked to do at Alabama -- good luck to you," said Sailer. "He's put in a situation to fail. His stats aren't going to look good."
You'd never know it from Foster's sunny disposition. Grilled for nearly an hour Friday, his smile never faded. "Yes sir," he said before politely answering most questions. He said he re-watched the Nov. 5 game a few times to review "the technical part," but, "I turned off the TV, didn't watch ESPN, didn't re-run it in my mind or rehash it or anything like that." He received support from teammates, as well as former NFL kicker Kris Brown, who played for the same Texas high school (Southlake Carroll) as Foster.
He and Shelly also have a whole lot of folks in the kicking community rooting for them to succeed if they do get their chance at redemption Monday night.
"You can't have the last game affect this game. It's a whole new ballgame," said Sailer. "Whether you're playing in a Pop Warner game or the NFL, it's just you and the football. You have to have confidence in your routine, have confidence to have a positive outlook.
"I see these guys bouncing back as opposed to having a similar type game. It's not like they're bad kickers. With proper training and the right advice and working hard, these guys will go out and redeem themselves."
If so, they'll win Alabama a BCS championship, and probably put a much-needed smile on the faces of Williamson, Goodale, Sharp, et. al.