Viral? Villified? The winner of Iowa’s placekicking race could determine whether the Hawkeyes finish first in the West — or third
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Mick Ellis still gets goose bumps.
“And I’m not the one who kicked it,” the Iowa sophomore said. “It’s just a really great feeling when you hit that game-winner, having that opportunity.”
Ellis is a kicker by trade, and along Melrose Avenue, kickers enjoy the living heck out of breaking down “The Pitt Game” — three words and 57 yards that carried the Hawkeyes for weeks. Months, even.
Last Sept. 19, then-kicker Marshall Koehn tipped a see-saw, physical tussle between Iowa and Pittsburgh with a 57-yard rainbow as time expired, a field goal that capped a 27-24 victory and sent Kinnick Stadium into a camera-shaking delirium. A win to be recounted, treasured and passed from one generation to the next.
“Unbelievable,” recalled Miguel Recinos, Koehn’s backup last season. “It was something that you’ll never forget.”
It was also the wind beneath the wings of a 12-0 start, to some degree, a shot of Red Bull up everybody’s backside. The 2015 Big Ten West champions would go on to play five more contests decided by eight points or fewer, winning four of them. (The lone loss came at the worst time imaginable, against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, 16-13.)
College football is a confidence game, as much as anything, a mental dogfight. The right big kick at the right huge time can be downright infectious.
As in, the good kind.
“But for guys on the outside … they might not understand how important it is to sit there and focus on special teams,” Ellis said, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. “They’re like ‘Why are we kicking field goals AGAIN?’
“But coach (Kirk Ferentz) harps on it every day, so I think everybody gets it now, how crucial (it is). You know, a good kicker is worth maybe one or two extra games for your (team) and hopefully we get the guys to do that.”
And one or two extra games in the Big Ten West might be the difference between first and fourth. To that end, Ferentz has eight specialists in camp and four kickers. Koehn? Gone. Punter Dillon Kidd? See ya.
Koehn’s replacement on field goals and kickoffs — he’d recorded 90 touchbacks the past two seasons, tops in the Big Ten — is one of the most sneaky-interesting subplots tied to one of college football’s sneaky-good rosters.
Especially given that the contestants’ respective bodies of work fall into either one of two categories: a) Inconclusive; or b) non-existent.
As a true freshman in 2014, Ellis, a 5-foot-10 Texan, came in against Ball State, hit a pair of extra points and missed a 29-yard field goal attempt. Recinos made good on 2 of 2 extra-point tries last fall and averaged 61.5 yards on two kickoffs as Koehn’s top understudy.
Recinos, the sophomore out of Mason City, Iowa, opened preseason camp as the No. 1 guy. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he finishes the month there. A pair of intriguing true freshmen are also in the mix in walk-ons Keith Duncan and Caleb Shudak, the son of former Iowa State kicker Jeff Shudak.
“I mean, the mental game is big,” said the 6-1 Recinos, who, as a chemistry major, understands the head games better than most. “To be honest with you, everyone is a little different in how they approach it. So it’s kind of person-by-person.”
What do you think will put you over the top?
“For the job?”
For the job.
“You’d have to ask Coach Ferentz that,” he replied. “I just try to go out and kick, make the kicks, try to make it as simple as possible, try not to think too much about it. I just always think that, the more you can simplify it, the better off you are.”
It’s about consistency. It’s about pressure. It’s about chutzpah. It’s about how the noggin reacts to utter chaos. It’s kicking when you’re exhausted, kicking with what sounds like a pack of tortured gibbons screaming in your ear, kicking when it feels as if the entire stadium is riding on your soul. Ferentz and his staff are going to try all of the above over the next three weeks, and that’s probably just the icing.
“There’s a mental side of it,” Ellis said. “We can get it in practice and (Ferentz), again, harps on how important it is. So the more tested whomever gets the job is, the better they’re going to do in those pressure situations, the farther we go along in the season.”
True enough. Because what’s interesting is that, whether in good times and bad, how Ferentz’s teams consistently dance around fine margins.
CBSSports.com’s Jon Solomon earlier this month broke down FBS coaches’ winning percentage in games decided by seven points or fewer, and Ferentz was eighth out of the 11 Big Ten honchos ranked by percentages at their current school (41-45, .477). That put him ahead of only Mike Riley at Nebraska (3-6, .333), Kevin Wilson at Indiana (7-18, .280) and Darrell Hazell at Purdue (1-7, .125).
In seasons in which a Ferentz squad won nine or more contests, Iowa went 21-8 in those “close” games. In years in which they won six or fewer, that record was 7-16.
Now the notion that good Ferentz teams win more tight games than the poorer ones isn’t really sexy — or even all that clever — except for this: Those “close” games are actually fairly frequent. Ferentz has coached Iowa in 217 contests, and 86 of them — 40.2 percent — have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Among Big Ten coaches with more than seven seasons at their respective institutions, only Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald has a higher ratio of “close” games at his respective school (43.6 percent of the time), with Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio nipping at their heels at 39.2 percent.
And while stats can lie, metrics often don’t. Brian Fremeau’s FEI system — or Fremeau Efficiency Index — is the go-to ratings chart at FootballOutsiders.com, analyzing almost 20,000 drives in order to quantify the effect of special teams in terms of points per game.
The FEI tracks, among other things, Field Goal Efficiency (or FGE) — which, according to the site, is the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
It’s a mouthful, but it’s also fairly telling. During a span from 2007-‘15, in the years (’15, ’12, ’09) the Hawkeyes ranked among FootballOutsiders’ top 56 in national Field Goal Efficiency — or roughly the top half — Iowa averaged nine victories. In the seasons in which the field-goal unit ranked 57th or lower, the bottom half, the average return was 7.5 wins.
In other words, Ellis is pretty much on the ball — the quality of the Hawkeyes’ kicking game over the past decade has amounted to a difference of 1.5 victories, or one or two per season.
“It’s just the consistency, whoever can kick when the highest pressure is on,” Ellis continued. “And still make that 33-yard field goal, that 47-yard field goal, that 57-yard game-winner. Who makes that when the pressure’s on, right?
“So who can have that consistency, not only day-to-day, (but) when they have the highest amount of pressure that can be? So whoever can figure that part out (will win). If you guys have any hints, feel free to let me know.”
We’ll, um, have to get back to you on that one. Someone in this bunch is going to wind up as the kicker the locals tell their grandchildren about. Of course, whether they’re smiling as they tell it remains to be seen.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler