by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Five weeks into the 2012 season and Northwestern placekicker Jeff Budzien is a serious candidate for the Lou Groza Award. No one could have seen this coming, especially since coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed reluctant to put Budzien out on the field for the majority of the 2011 campaign. Yet, as much credit as Budzien surely deserves, a field goal demonstrates a smooth and efficient assembly line more than it does a single talented artisan. As good as the redshirt junior placekicker has been this season, there's far more going on behind the scenes than most fans realize.
"If it goes in, it goes in, people think it's perfect," redshirt junior long snapper Pat Hickey said. "There are definitely snaps where they're not right over the spot, or (redshirt junior Brandon Williams') holds, he doesn't put it right on the spot for the kick spot, or Jeff's kick, he doesn't hit it great but he hits it well enough to go in. So, we all make some little mistakes but usually if the ball is in, it's in. We forget about it, flush it and go to the next one."
The main actors on the assembly line are Budzien, Williams and Hickey. The three have been working together since they were all freshmen, and that chemistry has paid off in Budzien's success this season.
"It's just become such a comfort with how Pat snaps the ball," Williams said. "I know what it's going to look like. I know where it's going to be. I know if it's not 100 percent perfect where the tendencies are, where he tends to miss or how the ball is coming back, so it's just become such a routine that the weather doesn't really affect it that much."
Given the precision required in their trade, the added experience has been particularly helpful in diminishing the pressure and nerves that come with each kick.
"I was definitely a little more nervous last year before games just because I hadn't experienced Big Ten play yet," Hickey said. "Coming into this year, having a full season under my belt and a bowl game and all of that, it definitely makes a big difference in how you feel out there. You're definitely more comfortable. You've played a lot of the teams you're going to play this year anyway, so you kind of know what they do."
Even in a season like this one, in which Budzien has sent all 11 of his field-goal attempts through the uprights and has also made all 19 of his extra-point attempts, things are rarely as simple as they seem.
Challenges lie aplenty for both Williams and Hickey. For Williams, who is also the team's punter, he has developed a very clear set of standards to determine when he should warm up for punts and when he should warm up for holding kicks on the sideline. Once the ball crosses midfield, that's when he starts preparing for field goals. Until then, he's punting into the net.
Hickey, on the other hand, had to learn how to block upon his arrival in Evanston. In high school, his blocking duties were far more sporadic. But at Northwestern, he is expected to block as soon as the ball has been snapped. Making sure he doesn't move too quickly, and snaps it cleanly before settling into his block, are tricks of the trade for Hickey.
"You definitely need to focus on finishing a snap first because that's the biggest thing. If the ball doesn't get there, then there's no need to block," Hickey said. "Over the last couple of years, I've gotten a lot better at snapping, being able to be comfortable with the snap and quickly getting to my block and my set. It's difficult, but you got to really focus on snapping the ball first and then blocking. It's kind of become a fluid motion now to where I can go snap to block pretty quickly."
And while many believe that long snapping for punts is harder, given the greater distance between the punter and the long snapper, Hickey said that snapping for field goals is just as hard, perhaps harder, given the precision required in order to hit a kneeling target.
"It's definitely all about accuracy with that snap," Hickey said. "It's shorter and people think it could be easier for that reason, but really you just got to focus on hitting him. I aim for his kneecap, so when he's down there, he's great, I mean he makes me look good a lot more than I make him look good."
The trio prepares as much as possible for bad results. Every other week, they'll practice a new alternate plan, in case the snap is bad, and they have to go for the first down instead. Williams said that such a scenario is particularly hard on the front line, which must quickly adjust from protecting a kick to blocking for a rush or a pass. Williams also said that Hickey will purposefully send him bad snaps in practice to prepare him for the unlikely event that Hickey messes one up during a game.
"Today, we practiced outside in the rain just to get used to handling the wet ball; handling for Pat, snapping a wet ball; for me catching it; so we do stuff like that," Williams said, "and then from time to time, I'll have Pat just throw me bad snaps like roll one into me, throw them high, throw them behind me just to get used to it."
The unit will face more pressure than usual this weekend. For one, they'll be kicking in front of 100,000-plus at Beaver Stadium, although Williams said that the additional noise will not bother him one bit.
"We always tell the coaches that we think it's harder to hold when it's just dead silent," Williams said. "That's a bigger struggle for us."
That's not to say he didn't notice the teeming masses on his first trip to Happy Valley.
"Especially my first year on the field, I was kind of wide eyed but once we got that going, it's just like alright, it doesn't matter how many people are here, they can't do anything to affect what happens on the field so I just had to collect myself and then just do my job," Williams said.
What will bother him, to some extent, is the rain that is expected to fall on University Park, Pa., this weekend. Showers are expected during Saturday's game, and while Hickey and Williams frequently practice with a wet ball, there's always something unpredictable about holding a wet ball against the turf.
"Surprisingly, it doesn't complicate it that much besides just really having to focus on catching it clean, but other than that, it's not much different," Williams said. "Obviously there's a little bit of nervousness from having it in both of your hands and putting it down and holding with two fingers, when your fingers are wet, your hands will slip off and the ball will fall over and anything like that, but it's just one of those things that we do so much."
It's when mistakes are made that this unit relies on each other the most.
"I like to think of it as Pat makes a small mistake, I cover Pat's mistakes," Williams said. "If I make a small mistake, Jeff can cover my mistakes. That's why we always used to say Jeff has the hardest job because no one covers anything that he would have a mistake in."
Thus far, as a combined unit, they've been nothing short of perfect.
Stat of the Day: Getting Off to a Good Start
The early bird catches the worm, right?
One would think I'm talking about Northwestern, given that it's the Wildcats who have jumped off a 5-0 start this season. I was actually talking about Penn State, however, since the Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents 49-0 in the opening quarter of games this season. Penn State has been similarly dominant, 27-9, in the second quarter, but has been outscored in both the third (31-21) and fourth (28-26) quarters this season.