Before the season last year, I said I wanted that, and I wanted to be in contention for the Lou Groza Award. It’s the same this year, because overall that will benefit the team. —Dominik Eberle
LOGAN — That cruel December memory was fading Saturday at Maverik Stadium, as Utah State staged its Blue-White game. Rain showers just before kickoff helped wash away the pain.
Officially, the 2018 season started in January when players came back from Christmas break. But, unofficially, it was the scrimmage that put last year’s Arizona Bowl in the rearview mirror. No more thoughts of losing a to a New Mexico State team that hadn’t been bowling in 57 years.
“There’s a taste in our mouth that we didn’t finish right from the New Mexico State game and the Arizona Bowl, and I think it motivated these guys in the offseason,” coach Matt Wells said. “We’ve got to find a way to take it from good to great.”
How things went wrong in Arizona can be blamed on several factors, not the least being placekicker Dominik Eberle, who missed four field goals, including a 29-yarder in overtime. Was it lost focus? Oh, Eberle has focus. He made 16 of 18 field goals in the 2017 regular season. Nerves? He has made 19 of 23 career field goals.
“I had food poisoning — throwing up night before. I got an hour’s sleep,” Eberle said. “In the end, I can’t really blame that. I made the decision to go play.”
Thus he took the first step to recovery by kicking a 55-yard field goal in the first quarter of Saturday’s event. That gave the offense a 5-4 lead. Don’t try to make sense of the scoring. Wells’ spring game format awarded one point for a first down, two points for a run of 15 or more yards, six points for a turnover, three points for a blocked field goal and two points for a stopped drive or sack.
And you thought figure skating was complicated.
Later in the first quarter, Eberle drilled a 31-yard kick, but he fell short on a second 55-yard try into the wind.
“With kicking, it’s a one-kick mentality,” Eberle said. “It doesn’t matter if I hit 40 field goals or miss the next three. I try to take every kick by itself and try to focus. Of course the bowl game was something that motivated me, but in the end, it’s one game and doesn’t define who I am.”
Being willing to talk about his painful memory, several months later, says more about him than the game ever did.
"He's my field goal kicker,” Wells said immediately after the game. “I love that kid, and he's been really consistent all year. Was I surprised? Yes. Was I disappointed in him? Not one bit."
That rings true, because Eberle is still USU’s — and possibly the Mountain West’s — best field goal kicker.
Thank goodness for short winters, spring games, and FDA inspections.
Utah State place kicker Dominik Eberle (62) reacts after missing a field goal in overtime against New Mexico State during the Arizona Bowl. | Rick Scuteri, AP
Whenever things like the Arizona Apocalypse occur, there is plenty of criticism to go around. Often it gets blamed on the “flaky kicker” phenomenon. But kickers are often more reliable than, say, wide receivers, who drop open passes all the time. The theory remains that placekickers are an unpredictable lot.
Eberle’s explanation could have been the same as Scrooge’s — an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. He made a field goal to start the second quarter in Arizona, missed one, then hit one to end the half. That’s when the big problems struck. He missed a 49-yarder in the third, another early in the fourth. The killer was overtime. USU had the ball on first drive and failed to find the end zone, setting up Eberle’s short, failed attempt.
The ball struck the upright.
NMSU scored on the following drive to end the game.
This wasn’t the product of an unprepared or under-talented specialist. Eberle was one of three Lou Groza finalists, having made five of six from 40-plus yards. He was USU’s special teams co-player of the year, a first team All-Mountain West selection and third-team All-America. Against San Jose State, he set a school kicking record with 19 points.
This spring, he has been back to his reliable self. He notified Wells that his range extends to 60 yards — and it looked believable. He says his goal is to convert 100 percent of his tries in 2018.
“That’s always been my goal,” he said. “Before the season last year, I said I wanted that, and I wanted to be in contention for the Lou Groza Award. It’s the same this year, because overall that will benefit the team.”
Eberle didn’t look like a beaten man on Saturday. He looked a lot like someone who had one bad day a while ago. Just before kickoff, the rain stopped.