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Budzien's clutchness on PATs, and what it means for the kicking game

Northwestern Wildcats kicker Jeff Budzien (37) makes kicking PATs look easy, like this game-winner against Syracuse.
Northwestern Wildcats kicker Jeff Budzien (37) makes kicking PATs look easy, like this game-winner against Syracuse.

Lost in all the superlatives and hand-wringing over NU's 42-41 win over Syracuse was the fine performance of kicker Jeff Budzien. Budzien didn't get many chances to shine, with no field goal attempts. But he was a perfect 6-for-6 on PATs, none more crucial than the go-ahead point after the Siemian-to-Fields TD catch with 44 seconds left.

Now, kicking a PAT may seem like a mundane and easy task. But have you seen those halftime contests, where they invite a random fan to try a field goal to win $5,000 or whatever? Those contests where, without any bullrushing defenders, the random fan still unleashes a shanked wounded duck that comes nowhere close to clearing the bar?

Well, with all the pressure of Saturday's game on him against a defense that was selling out for the kick block in a hostile, loud stadium with sauna-like conditions, Budzien easily converted the game-winning PAT. Had he missed, I wouldn't have liked our chances in OT, given how our defense was melting down.

Budzien, a redshirt junior who was an All-American out of high school, has actually been amazingly consistent on PATs. Last year, in his first season as the full-time placekicker, Budzien went a perfect 50 for 50. In fact, including last Saturday and the spot action he got as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Budzien has yet to miss a PAT in his career.

The significance of this is real. Before last year, NU had not had a season where its kickers were perfect on PATs since 1998, when Brian Gowins and Tim Long combined to go 23-for-23. And given how close NU's games tend to be, a missed PAT can have a big impact. Botched PATs, in fact, have factored prominently in three of NU's past four bowl games, the exception being last year's, when Budzien was the kicker.

As a field goal attempter, however, Budzien's record is mixed. He went 6-for-10 last year. He booted a 47-yarder at Iowa and a 43-yarder against Boston College. He also missed a 26-yarder against Army. The other three misses were from 45, 45 and 47 yards. The 10 attempts represented the lowest season total by NU kickers in more than 20 years.

At some point, in all likelihood, Budzien will be called upon to kick a field goal at an important juncture in a game. But until that happens, it's a bit unclear what kind of kicker he is. The accuracy on PATs gives hope that Budzien should be solid on short-range FGs. He clearly has work to do on attempts of 40+, which obviously aren't easy and aren't automatic for the vast majority of college kickers.

NU's history of kickers is, shall we say, less than sublime. Everybody likes to rag on Stefan Demos for his high-profile misses in 2009 and 2010, but he hardly ranks among the worst. Even the Rose Bowl and Citrus Bowl kickers, Sam Valenzisi and Brian Gowins, whom everybody remembers fondly, had somewhat pedestrian 73.6% and 68.2% career FG marks, respectively.

Here's a year-by-year FG summary of NU kickers:

2011 Jeff Budzien: 6/10, 60%

2010 Stefan Demos: 16/23, 70%

2009 Stefan Demos: 18/25, 72%

2008 Amado Villarreal: 20/25, 80%

2007 Amado Villarreal: 12/18, 67%

2006 Joel Howells: 8/12, 67%

2005 Joel Howells: 11/21, 52%; Amado Villarreal: 1/1, 100%

2004 Brian Huffman: 7/17, 41%; Joel Howells, 4/5: 80%

2003 Brian Huffman: 5/7, 71%; Slade Larscheid: 2/6, 33%; Joel Howells: 0/1, 0%

2002 David Wasielewski: 10/18, 56%; Brian Huffman: 0/1, 0%

2001 David Wasielewski: 7/13, 54%

2000 Tim Long: 12/16, 75%

1999 Tim Long: 12/18, 67%

1998 Brian Gowins: 17/24, 71%

1997 Brian Gowins: 20/27, 74%

1996 Brian Gowins: 16/24, 67%

1995 Sam Valenzisi: 15/16, 94%; Brian Gowins: 5/10, 50%

1994 Sam Valenzisi: 13/19, 68%

1993 Sam Valenzisi: 11/18, 61%

As you can see, we've had some awful years of kicking in the past two decades. But also some really solid years. My point isn't to single out the bad performers, but more to show that kicking at the college level is hard. And sometimes people have selective memories of heroes and goats. For instance, I remember David Wasielewski for booting several clutch FGs, but when you look at his overall numbers, they're actually downright ugly. And I think the opposite applies for Stefan Demos.

Back to the original point of this post: Budzien's place in the pantheon of NU kickers is still to be determined. He hasn't been utilized much by Fitz, and to the extent that he has, he hasn't been particularly notable one way or other. I do think his PAT numbers do deserve to be highlighted, especially since he helped win the game against Syracuse.

I talked about the kicking game in my sorta tongue-in-cheek five burning questions after spring practice. The kicking game is still a question mark, and, in my mind, an underrated one. Much of the focus has been on whether we'd have a decent running game or whether the defense would be improved from last year, but no one's been talking about the kicking game, which in previous years has been responsible for some of NU's biggest wins and losses.

As far as I can tell, nobody's asked Fitz or the rest of the coaching staff a single question about how Budzien (and kickoff specialist Steve Flaherty, who might be called upon for longer distance FGs) are faring. We'll find out soon enough, probably. Unless we keep scoring nothing but touchdowns, in which case, Budzien's awesome.