Arkansas trailed 7-0 when flanker Anthony Lucas caught an 11-yard pass from Clint Stoerner and crossed the plane of the goal line near the sideline. The covering official along the sideline raised his arms over his head, referee Gerald Wright went to the middle of the field and signaled touchdown, the guy on the p.a. announced the TD, the scoreboard operator put a 6 under ARKANSAS and the Razorbacks coaches in the press box knew they had hit pay dirt. But Ford and his assistants on the sideline missed it. "We never saw a signal," Ford said later.
The crew of officials added to the confusion by putting the ball on the right hash at the three-yard line instead of the spot in the middle of the field, from where extra points are attempted. Ford sent in a play for third-and-one. Imagine his surprise when, after tailback Rod Stinson dropped a pass attempt in the end zone, it came time for Arkansas to kick off, trailing, 7-6.
"We would never have gone for two if I had known we scored," Ford said. It was a decision he wouldn't have to worry about again. The Razorbacks didn't score another touchdown, and Southern Methodist pulled away to a 31-9 win.
Not So Special
Already this season many schools have won and lost games because of wildly gyrating performances on kickoffs and punts that make the stock market seem tame by comparison. For example, Syracuse returned a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown in each of its first three games, but on Sept. 6 the Orangemen had two punts blocked and a last-play, 44-yard field goal attempt hit an offensive lineman in the back in a 36-34 loss at Oklahoma.
Or consider North Carolina, which last Saturday blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to break open a close game against Stanford. The week before, the Tar Heels missed an extra point and committed a penalty on a punt in a 23-6 defeat of Indiana.
Tennessee has to be worried going into its showdown against Florida this Saturday. Alter booting three punts for only a 31.7-yard average against Texas Tech, the Volunteers' David Leaverton shanked two kicks (17 and 23 yards) against UCLA and yielded a safety when he couldn't get his kick away from the end zone after a high snap.
Through three weeks of the 1997 season, the 112 Division I-A schools had returned 10 kickoffs for touchdowns, or a rate of one score for every 91.1 kicks. That's an increase from a 1-to-231 ratio through the first three weeks of last season. Punt returns for touchdowns were running slightly below figures for last year. The NCAA doesn't keep track of other special teams foul-ups, such as blocked kicks and improper substitutions, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that there have been more such miscues than normal.
No coach worth his clichés would admit to minimizing special teams, but, says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, "coaches get so wrapped up in installing their offense or their defense that they don't make time for special teams work." That applies particularly to schools putting in new schemes. With 24 new head coaches in Division I-A and several teams with new coordinators, Paterno's point carries extra weight this year.
One coach who concedes that he gave special teams short shrift is Colorado's Rick Neuheisel, whose Buffaloes finished last in the country in kickoff returns with a 16.2-yard average in 1996. This year he moved special teams work from the end of practice to the middle. "It's easy to overlook if you let yourself," he says. "It has got to be part of your day's routine." Through three games the Buffaloes are averaging 24.4 yards per kickoff return, 26th in the nation.