The Weekend Review
Schiano's kicker search pays off; Beavers learn lesson the hard way
Posted: Monday September 6, 2004 10:16AM; Updated: Monday September 6, 2004 10:21AM
Greg Schiano has worked tirelessly for four years upgrading the talent level at Rutgers -- combing the Northeast for athletic defenders, scouring South Florida for speedy skill players, and securing a pair of talented running backs.
One day he may look back and conclude his most important recruit of all was an unassuming place-kicker from Redlands, Calif.
Following a rough start in which he missed his first three field-goal attempts (one was from 56 yards), true freshman Jeremy Ito converted four tries Saturday, including a 47- and a 42-yarder, in a 19-14 victory over Michigan State, the biggest win by far in Schiano's tenure.
In a game in which Rutgers racked up 420 yards of offense but bogged down nearly every time it sniffed the red zone, Ito's leg was literally the difference between a breakthrough, momentum-building victory for the program (the game was played in front of a record crowd on ABC) and starting yet another season with yet another disappointing loss.
Ito's emergence at Rutgers was no accident. After watching his team improve from 1-11 to 5-7 in 2003 but miss 12 of its 25 field-goal attempts, Schiano made it a priority last winter to sign a kicker. Special teams coach Darren Rizzi attended a national kicking combine held by former UCLA All-American Chris Sailer, whose summer Top 12 Camp has emerged as the high school kickers' equivalent to the Elite 11 quarterback combine. There, Rizzi offered a scholarship on the spot to Ito, who Sailer ranked as the top kicking prospect in the country.
Clearly it was worth the trip.
"We don't normally recruit the whole country, but at the end of last season I told our coaches, 'Wherever we have to go, we need to find the best kicker,'" Schiano said.
Despite a kicker's obvious effect on a game's outcome, most coaches still don't put nearly the emphasis on the kicking game that they should. This weekend, that neglect bit a couple of teams in brutal fashion.
Hours after Rutgers basked in its breakthrough victory, Oregon State missed out on arguably the biggest win in school history when kicker Alexis Serna missed three extra points in a heartbreaking, 22-21 overtime loss to co-defending national champion LSU. Meanwhile, Northwestern lost out on a possible season-opening upset of TCU, an 11-2 team a year ago, due to five missed field goals by kicker Brian Huffman, including a chip-shot 25-yarder in overtime.
For the previous two seasons, the Beavers enjoyed the services of Kirk Yliniemi (now with the San Francisco 49ers), who made 37-of-43 career field-goal attempts and 96-of-98 extra points. Heading into one of the nation's most hostile atmospheres to play the fourth-ranked team in the country, Oregon State placed its kicking job in the hands of a redshirt freshman walk-on with a whopping eight high-school field goals to his credit.
Sailer said the Beavers actively recruited several kickers from his camp last year, but wound up offering their final scholarship to juco punter Sam Paulescu instead.
"What ends up happening is, a school tries to get away with signing a guy once every four years instead of once every 2-3 years," Sailer said. "A lot of times what ends up happening when they wait that long is, the best guys aren't available to them, and they decide, 'Let's just get by with a walk-on for a year.' Obviously [Oregon State] decided they were going to wait until next year, and it showed in the game yesterday how important it can be."
Traditionally coaches have feared using a scholarship on a kicker because there was often no way of knowing his true ability due to limited high-school experience, but Sailer's camp has made it possible for coaches to see them with their own eyes. "It becomes obvious very quickly who has the strongest leg, and who's the most fundamentally sound," Sailer said.
If this weekend taught us anything, it's that it's probably worth paying attention to the position. Just ask Schiano.
"We try to put three scholarships towards special teams -- one kicker, one punter and one combo guy," the fourth-year Scarlet Knights coach said. "That should show how important we think it is."
Player of the Week
Kay-Jay Harris, RB, West Virginia: The former minor-league outfielder was widely expected to become the latest in a line of 1,000-yard Mountaineer rushers, but who knew he'd chalk up a third of it in the first game? Harris, more of a speed runner than predecessors Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson, torched East Carolina for 337 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. Next on Harris' agenda: Finally getting his first career start -- he was punished for a poor week of practice by having to come off the bench Saturday.
Oklahoma State RB Vernand Morency (29 carries, 261 yards, two TDs) vs. UCLA; Northwestern QB Brett Basanez (39-of-62, 513 yards, four TDs) vs. TCU; Cal RB J.J. Arrington (16 carries, 181 yards, three TDs) vs. Air Force; Utah QB Alex Smith (21-of-29, 359 yards, 13 carries for 76 yards, two TDs) vs. Texas A&M; BYU punter Matt Payne (six punts inside the 20, four inside the 10, 53-yard field goal) vs. Notre Dame.
Team of the week
Florida Atlantic: Everything Howard Schnellenberger touches (besides Oklahoma) turns to gold. With Hurricane Frances doing unspeakable damage back home, the Owls, in just their fourth year of existence and last before making the move up to I-A, traveled five time zones to Hawaii and rallied to knock off the Warriors, a bowl team the past two seasons, in overtime.
Gratuitous props to ...
Memphis, for beating Ole Miss for a second straight year; Troy (formerly Troy State) for doing the same to Marshall; new Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, whose unit held the nation's leading rusher in 2003, North Texas' Patrick Cobbs, to eight carries for minus-1 yard; and Sylvester Croom for winning his debut at Mississippi State.
Tony Hunt, RB, Penn State: So he's why Joe Paterno isn't starting Austin Scott. Hunt, a sophomore whose prep accolades paled in comparison to those of classmate Scott, could be the big-play runner the Nittany Lions have been missing since Larry Johnson. Hunt broke off a 77-yard run on his first carry against Akron and finished with 137 yards on eight carries (while Scott contributed 116 yards on 11 attempts).
Did you see this catch?
With BYU clinging to a 20-17 lead against Notre Dame and needing one more first down to run out the clock, QB Matt Berry dropped back on third and 8 from his own 25 and heaved a bomb to wide receiver Todd Watkins. The touted juco transfer, having already caught a 50-yard pass on the Cougars' first series, jumped for the ball amongst two Irish defenders -- one of whom would be called for interference -- and improbably came down with it for a game-clinching 37-yard gain.
Brain freeze of the week
Sonny Lubick, Colorado State. OK, we're willing to go along with Lubick's desire to go for the win instead of the tie against Colorado, despite the 1996 invention of this little thing called overtime. But calling two straight running plays when you've already used all of your timeouts?? Give credit to the Buffaloes for an emotional goal-line stand, but even Lubick admits the Rams were in "out of synch" when it came to clock management.
'You will get your [butt] kicked ...'
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's attempt to tack on another touchdown in the final seconds of a 27-13 win over SMU drew the ire of Mustangs coach Phil Bennett and prompted a brawl among players at midfield afterward.
"You will get your [butt] kicked when you get into the Big 12," Bennett shouted at Leach, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Red Raiders QB Sonny Cumbie, who threw for 480 yards in his debut, defended his coach thusly: "I guess if you don't like it, stop it."
1. Remember a day when quarterbacks had to bide their time for a few years while holding the clipboard? Sayonora. True-freshman QBs were everywhere this weekend, from Chad Henne starting for Michigan to Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge rotating for Tennessee. Brian Brohm shared snaps with incumbent Stefan LeFors for Louisville, Joe Fields started for Syracuse, and Paterno even inserted Anthony Morelli during garbage time for Penn State.
2. It's hard to say which of these coaches on the hot seat got off to a less encouraging start -- Notre Dame's Tyrone Willingham (lost to BYU, with his offense struggling yet again), North Carolina's John Bunting (his supposedly improved defense allowed 38 points and 453 yards to William & Mary) or Syracuse's Paul Pasqualoni (lost 51-0 to Purdue). Wait a minute, who am I kidding? 51-0??
3. I'm feeling pretty good about that Minnesota Big Ten title pick right about now. The Gophers dismantled a very respectable Toledo team 63-21, racking up 704 yards of offense. While Minnesota's dominance on the ground was to be expected, who would have predicted first-time starting QB Bryan Cupito would go 10-of-12 for 279 yards passing? Meanwhile, the defense held star Rockets QB Bruce Gradkowski to just 202 yards.
4. Cal's offense is flat-out scary. The Bears have so many weapons that they were able to rack up 573 yards on Air Force despite Geoff McArthur, the nation's leading returning receiver, catching just one pass for seven yards. Defenses now have to contend not just with QB Aaron Rodgers but RB Arrington, who ran for 181 yards.
5. Kansas State gave the ball to Darren Sproles 42 times (he gained 221 yards) in a harder-than-expected victory over Western Kentucky. Whether it's an attempt by Bill Snyder to force-feed his best player, or lack of faith in quarterbacks Dylan Meier and Alan Webb, you have to wonder whether the 5-foot-7 mini-man can hold up over an entire season if such workloads continue.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.