Will walk-on kickers make the difference in the Fiesta Bowl?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Two years ago, Tyler Durbin was kicking around a soccer ball at James Madison University. Greg Huegel was a freshman watching Clemson football games from the stands.
Now one of them could face a nerve-wracking shot at deciding whether No. 2 Ohio State (11-1, CFP No. 3) or Clemson (12-1, CFP No. 2) wins Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl and advances to the College Football Playoff championship game.
“Every kicker I think always dreams of kicking that game-winning field goal,” Durbin said. “It puts a lot of pressure on you, but that’s why you’re in the business.”
Durbin is still a non-scholarship player, taking over as the Buckeyes kicker when Sean Nuernberger injured his groin in fall practice this year.
“He’s seized the opportunity and had a phenomenal year. We love him to death,” special teams coach Kerry Coombs said. “The first football game of his life was our opener this year.”
At Clemson, Huegel practiced three or four times a week, made regular contact with special teams coach Danny Pearman and entered a kicking competition before the 2015 season.
“I knew that I wanted to walk-on just because I didn’t have anything to lose,” Huegel said.
After a standout first season, Huegel has a scholarship now.
Durbin knows a whole lot about pressure.
Through 11 games this season, he was 16-for-17 on field goals, with his only miss being a block against Penn State .
Then came the regular-season finale against Michigan.
In an intense, close game, Durbin missed twice, once from 37 yards, later a 21-yard chip shot. Combs approached his downcast kicker.
“I walked down there and saw him after he missed the second one,” Coombs said. “I don’t usually talk to him during the game but I gave him my wristband.” It reads E + R = O, Event plus Response equals Outcome, a program motto that coach Urban Meyer picked up from motivational speakers.
Coombs said he told his young kicker, “You’re going to make the kick to win the game.”
Not quite, but it was a season-saver.
Moments later, Durbin jogged onto the field and nailed a 23-yarder with a second left to send the game into overtime. Ohio State eventually won 30-27 in two overtimes .
“I was just thankful that the defense was able to get a stop after that miss and put me in a position to tie the game towards the end there,” Durbin said. “It never feels good missing a kick, especially a short one like that in a big game like that. But I was relieved to get another opportunity to put it through.”
Kickers, like cornerbacks, must have short memories. Fans can be brutal, too.
“It’s a love-hate relationship with the fans, but you can’t really worry about what they’re thinking,” Huegel said, “It comes with being a kicker. You get used to it.”
Huegel followed his sister to Clemson. A kicker in high school, he was just “a normal student” as a freshman. But he watched the Tigers play and wanted to be a part of it all.
That led to practices, and then he was given a shot.
“He came to basically a kicker tryout and really showed consistency and did well,” Pearman said, “really liked his demeanor, his makeup. He’s really been kind of a steady performer for us.”
Oh, and about that story Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney likes to tell of discovering Huegel kicking a can while the would-be kicker worked at a grocery store?
“I’ve never even worked in a grocery store,” Huegel said.
In 2015, his first year as Clemson kicker, Huegel made 27 of 32 field goals and 57 of 62 extra points, along the way breaking C.J. Spiller’s school scoring record with 138 points. Huegel made two field goals and all four PAT tries in last season’s championship game loss to Alabama.
He hasn’t had to work as hard this year.
Huegel has attempted just 17 field goals, making 12. In the last four games, he attempted one field goal, and missed.
No matter. The Tigers were scoring touchdowns.
Now two kickers who made it to major college football the hard way wait are poised for the postseason spotlight.
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