Vikings’ rookie kicker performs under pressure

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings tried various maneuvers during training camp and the preseason to simulate pressure for rookie kicker Blair Walsh.

There was no way to prepare Walsh for what he’d have to do in his first NFL regular-season game.

Walsh came on with four seconds left in the fourth quarter and nailed a clutch 55-yard field goal to put Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars into overtime and won the game with a 38-yard field goal after Minnesota stopped Jacksonville’s final attempt in overtime. Walsh’s two kicks helped the Vikings come away with a 26-23 overtime victory against the Jaguars in the season-opener.

“It’s intestinal fortitude,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “As a rookie, it doesn’t get much more pressure than that. And to come through for us, it really improved the confidence of our players along with his confidence as time goes on.”

Walsh was drafted in the sixth round of April’s draft after an inconsistent senior season at Georgia. The Vikings had seen Walsh’s strong leg and believed they could fix some of the inconsistencies for Walsh, who they believed was rushing to the ball on field-goal attempts. His strong leg was also going to be an asset on kickoffs and Minnesota released veteran kicker Ryan Longwell not long after the draft believing in Walsh’s ability.

He missed a kick in each of the final three preseason games, two at the Metrodome, and was 8 for 11 in getting a lot of work in the preseason.

But even rushed at the end of regulation, Walsh knew he had the length to clear 55 yards.

“I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s just another kick, just another play and you’ve got to treat it that way,” Walsh said. “The situation is the situation. You can’t change that. So, you’ve just got to go out there and do what you do.

“I knew where I was on my distance in warm-up and they asked me. That’s what I said it was and we’re fortunate to get it there.”

Walsh said he didn’t have many game-winning, clock-expiring chances at Georgia. He said he made a game-winner as a freshman for the Bulldogs.

The Vikings tried several things in training camp to simulate those types of situations for Walsh, at times rushing him onto the field at training camp in Mankato for a quick kick during the middle of practice, or setting him up for attempts right at the end of practice as a close to practice. They also asked his teammates to get loud, sometimes razzing him, to get ready for the pressure kicks of the regular season.

He passed the first test, which couldn’t have been any more pressure-packed.

“You can’t simulate that,” Walsh said. “They did do a good job of putting me in situations from short, middle and long range at the end of practices, or things to make me win it. But you can’t simulate that though. I was just happy I went out there and executed.”

Kalil’s block: One reason Walsh had the chance to kick the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation was fellow rookie Matt Kalil’s extra-point block in the second quarter.

Kalil is no stranger to blocking kicks, a rare skill he’s transferred from his days at the University of Southern California. Kalil blocked four kicks last season and said he blocked seven for his career at USC. The Vikings knew he had a knack and included him on the block-kicking unit.

“I just happen to be 6-7,” Kalil said, attributing the success to his genetics at 6-foot-7. “I was born that way. It’s just about getting under the guys, jumping up and hopefully block it.”

He blocked two PATs and two field goals last season for the Trojans. The last time Minnesota had blocked a kick was Dec. 20, 2009, with Ray Edwards accomplishing the feat.

Ponder recovers after slow start: Quarterback Christian Ponder connected on his first pass of the game, but the offense was sluggish early after unsuccessful rushing attempts and incompletions plaguing Ponder. He connected on just three of his first seven passes, but found his rhythm and had one of his most efficient regular-season efforts.

He finished 20 of 27 for 270 yards passing, finishing with a 105.5 quarterback rating. In the second half and overtime, he was 13 for 16 for 192 yards. On the final drive of regulation, he hit Devin Aromashodu for a 26-yard gain and followed with a six-yard completion to tight end Kyle Rudolph, driving in just 10 seconds of clock time to set up Walsh’s game-tying kick.

“It starts with me and I didn’t play that well, to be honest with you,” Ponder said. “I don’t know why. But I changed my attitude about the game and said, ‘I’ve got to pick it up and change this and create a sense of urgency, get out of the huddle and just start letting the ball go.’ I did that. This offense is going to go with how the quarterback plays. He sets the tone for this whole offense. And I’ve got to make sure I’m on my ‘A’ game all the time, all four quarters. Something to learn from and next week will be better. I’ve got to start from play one to have that sense of urgency.”

Harvin gets the offense going: Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage was a 15-yard pass to Rudolph and they didn’t convert their second first down until there was 3 minutes, 58 seconds left in the second quarter.

On the next drive, the offense finally started to move the ball and receiver Percy Harvin provided the spark. Harvin caught three short passes and turned them into two first downs and Adrian Peterson finished the drive with the team’s first touchdown.

“It makes my job a lot easier when I can throw a short little screen pass and Percy can turn it into 20 or 30 yards,” Ponder said. “He’s so dynamic. I think it’s important for us to get completions because once you get completions, you get into a rhythm. I have to do a better job of not forcing things down the field and get those completions so we can get our wheels going.”

Harvin was targeted a team-high eight times and had six catches for 84 yards. He added five carries for 20 yards and returned three kickoffs for 88 yards.

“That’s what I’m here to do,” Harvin said. “My job is to move around the slot and receiver, things like that. Like I said before, anything this team needs me to do, I’ll do.”

Sellout streak ends: The paid attendance for Sunday was 56,607, marking the first time the Vikings haven’t sold out a regular season game since 1988.

Minnesota didn’t have sellouts in either of its two preseason games as well.

The game wasn’t blacked out locally though, thanks to the NFL’s new policy regarding blackouts. The Vikings will still televise the game locally as long as they have 90 percent of the tickets sold.

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