Special teams playing huge role in college football race
ATLANTA (AP) Another week, another wild finish in college football.
It doesn’t even seem that improbable anymore.
If nothing else, Georgia Tech’s stunning victory over Florida State on a 78-yard return of a blocked field goal as time ran out – not to mention Michigan State shocking Michigan on the final play with a touchdown off a bobbled punt two weekends ago – demonstrates the importance of special teams, a phase of the game that often gets shortchanged because of limitations on staff and practice time.
Many schools don’t have a full-time special teams coordinator, handing the role to an assistant with other duties.
That’s the case at Florida State, where Jay Graham oversees the running backs as well as the kicking game.
”We know when there’s a blocked kick, you’ve got to cover it,” said Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team tumbled eight spots to No. 17 in The Associated Press ranking Sunday and may have lost its shot at contending for a national title. ”We talk about that all the time.”
Not enough, apparently.
Florida State (6-1, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) got caught flat-footed when Georgia Tech blocked Roberto Aguayo’s attempt at a winning field goal from 56 yards with 6 seconds remaining. Lance Austin picked it up at his own 22, took off the other way, and didn’t stop running until he gave the Yellow Jackets a 22-16 victory Saturday night.
”A lot of their guys, a lot of our guys thought it was dead,” Aguayo conceded. ”It was kind of confusing.”
While Aguayo was attempting the longest field goal of his brilliant career, both he and Fisher insisted it was well within the kicker’s range. In fact, Georgia Tech had lost the previous week to Pittsburgh on a field goal from the same distance with just over a minute remaining. Aguayo had made 60 of 66 attempts for the Seminoles, never missing in the fourth quarter.
But when kicking from that far away, the trajectory must be a bit lower than an attempt from closer in. Patrick Gamble got a hand on the ball to seemingly force overtime.
Austin had other ideas.
With the ball rolling deep into Georgia Tech territory, he took off after it even while some of his teammates were still jumping around in celebration. On the sideline, coach Paul Johnson waved his arms and shouted for the sophomore to stay away from the ball.
After a brief hesitation, Austin decided to pick it up anyway.
That seemed to catch the Seminoles off guard. Suddenly, Austin had a wall of blockers in front of him as he took off down the sideline in front of the Georgia Tech bench. Only two players really had a shot at him, but Aguayo missed a diving tackle and another Florida State player spun off Austin when he made a brilliant cut at the 20.
”It was kind of surreal,” Austin said.
The play was reminiscent of Auburn’s 109-yard return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama on the final play in 2013, a game that ended the Crimson Tide’s hopes of a third straight national title and will forever be known as ”Kick Six.”
Now, for the second week in a row, we have a special teams TD deciding a game on the final play – both of which could have a huge impact on this year’s title race.
No. 6 Michigan State (8-0) is still in the mix thanks to Michigan’s blunder while attempting a punt with 10 seconds remaining. The snap was low, punter Blake O’Neill couldn’t hang on, and as he desperately tried to do something with the ball, it popped in the air right to Jalen Watts-Jackson. With a convoy of blockers leading the way, he took it to the end zone for a 27-21 victory as time expired.
At Georgia Tech, the kicking game became such a sore point that Johnson finally hired his first full-time special teams assistant in 2012. Even so, the Yellow Jackets had actually been struggling this season, essentially giving away a game at Duke with huge coverage breakdowns that led to a pair of touchdowns.
In case you’re wondering, Michigan also has a dedicated special teams coordinator (John Baxter). At Michigan State, linebacker coach Mark Snyder doubles up to handle the kicking game duties.
So, a full-time coach doesn’t mean you’ll never have a breakdown on special teams.
But one thing’s for sure after the last two weeks: This often-overlooked part of the game is worthy of everyone’s attention.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP College Football: www.collegefootball.ap.org