Utah Utes football: Ute kickers looking forward, not back
SALT LAKE CITY — The newspaper headline was every player's nightmare.
"Colorado can thank Petersen for first road win since 2007."
Right under the headline was a picture of Utah kicker Coleman Petersen, hands on head, disbelief frozen on his face. Three missed field goals, including one that could have sent the game to overtime, gave the walk-on from Brighton High the worst moments of an otherwise above-average season.
And it wasn't just him. Nick Marsh, who handles kickoffs for the Utes and is battling Petersen for the place-kicking job, only has to hear the word Colorado and he begins shaking his head. He attempted an onside kick that resulted in disastrous field position for the Utes.
"The ball rolls about 10 yards, bounced and squeezed right through my arms," said the California native. "That was terrible. I'd practice it so much, and I was so good at it. I had no idea how I could possibly screw it up."
The Colorado game was a metaphor for why special teams can't be an afterthought for a successful football team. But the reality is that most fans don't notice the kicking game until it goes awry. Coaches, however, are another matter.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham mentioned dissatisfaction with the kicking game last week, and special teams is a point of emphasis for the Utes. Still, his special teams coach said the kicking game is actually on pace to be as good or better than it was last season.
"So many games are won and lost by special teams so we spend a lot of time focusing on it," said special teams coach Jay Hill.
Special teams gets noticed for those last-second field goals that win — or lose — games, but the reality is a solid performance that not many people notice can affect a game more than a well-timed three points.
"Every time you go out and kick the ball, you're getting the biggest swings in field position," said Hill, who's led the Utes' special teams since 2005. "So you've got to be good at those things."
Hill sees the need to improve this season, but believes the team's kicking corps have the talent and work ethic needed to help the Utes win games.
"I think we're on track," Hill said. "We need our field goal kickers to be accurate, maybe hit a little higher percentage than they have, but other than that, I think we're on track with all of the other phases."
Despite the disastrous ending to the Utes' inaugural Pac-12 season, Hill said the Utes had the best kicking game in the league. With everyone back this season, he believes the Utes will be even better in the kicking department.
Yes, the Colorado game haunts him, but it isn't affecting his preparation this season.
"I don't feel any pressure as a coach, but absolutely it bothered me," he said of the Colorado loss. "You want to finish the season the way we started it. But that's also the fun part of this game. You get another chance to come back and get it right."
Both Hill and his players know it isn't a matter of if a kicker will miss, but when.
"Everybody misses kicks," Hill said. "It's how they rebound from them. The more mentally tough you are, the fewer kicks they miss. But they're also more likely to come back and make a kick after a miss if they're mentally tough also. This game is more mental than physical."
Marsh said when he has a bad kick, he can't wait for another opportunity.
"It's redemption," he said. "The worst feeling is not getting the chance to redeem yourself. Not getting the chance to redeem yourself is the worst because you don't want to let your teammates down."
Kickers have the reputation for being loners, but Marsh said that's not true of Utah's kickers.
"We're definitely different," he said glancing at his fellow kickers who were waiting for him to finish with interviews. "I feel like we get along great with everyone. There is no offense or defense for us. As a group we get along, and we're definitely part of the team. But, yeah, we're different."
Both Petersen and Marsh say they relish the mental challenges of the kicking game.
"I have always done better under pressure," said Petersen, who earned a scholarship after serving a mission in Argentina. "Colorado was a heartbreaker. I felt like I let my team down. It was hard to let down fans, but letting down my teammates was really hard."
He said his teammates buoyed his spirits after the loss (and acknowledged that wasn't the only reason for the defeat), and he said he's looking forward to redemption this fall.
"It's one of those things that in the moment really hurt," he said. "But I'd love to have that opportunity again. I think about it all the time. It's one of the things that motivates me."
Marsh said it's the pressure of those critical moments that inspire competitive athletes.
"We play football for that pressure," said Marsh. "If you're out here to kick on your own and not have people relying on you, well, that would be no fun. To hit a good punt and change the whole team's advantages, that's why you do this."
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