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They Really Put Foot in It This Time

Saturday in Tucson, two finely honed football teams, the UCLA Bruins and Arizona Wildcats, will play an important football game, maybe a Rose Bowl decider.

The squads will have been recruited with care to find the fleetest, the strongest, the wiliest physical specimens in the land. They will have been trained in weight rooms, fed the most scientific diets, to say nothing of the most complicated plays. Schemes will have been drawn on blackboards in intricate hieroglyphics, equipment will have been carefully fitted.

And then, the game that follows will be won by a player who never throws a pass, makes a tackle, lays a block or touches a football with anything but a shoe. He may not even be wearing pads.

They are putting the foot in football, all right. Right in its mouth.

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The field goal is overshadowing the game. It’s become a 50-yard game. Mini-football. Soccer with helmets.

The UCLA field-goal kicker, John Lee, has made all 16 of his field-goal attempts this year and all 24 of his PATs. He is, of course, the Bruins’ all-time scoring leader.

The Arizona kicker, Max Zendejas, has kicked 17 field goals.

The chances of anyone else determining which team goes to the Rose Bowl are remote.

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Perhaps the most important single game of the 1985 season to date, Iowa-Michigan, was decided by field goals, the four kicked by Iowa in winning, 12-10.

Nebraska’s Dale Klein kicked seven field goals in the Cornhuskers’ 28-20 win over Missouri.

It was projected that Notre Dame would have lost four more games last season if you subtracted the points their field-goal kicker, John Carney, produced. He kicked two 45-yarders against USC, and he beat Navy, 18-17, with a 44-yarder.

Gordon White, writing in the New York Times, points out that even coaches who win on the field goal think it is a case of the sideshow swallowing the circus. He quotes Tennessee Coach John Majors as expressing unhappiness with the ease with which three-pointers are made today, even after he had won a 16-13 game over Alabama, thanks largely to that very ease.

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White notes that even the NCAA rules secretary, Dave Nelson, agrees. “Somebody better put their finger in the dike,” he quotes Nelson as warning.

The rules governing the kicking game were eased in 1959, Nelson noted. At that time, the kicking game had atrophied almost to the vanishing point, and it was decided to beef it up by widening the goal posts from 18 feet 4 inches to 23-6, and by permitting the kicker to elevate the ball on a special two-inch kicking tee.

“There were 108 field goals in 1958 by university division teams,” Nelson told White. “Last year, these teams kicked over 2,300 field goals.”

The NCAA has been concerned enough to circulate an annual memo seeking recommendations.

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One solution would be to eliminate the kicking tee. It is noted the pros do not permit one in their games.

Another solution is to reduce the width of the goal posts to their original 18-4, the same as the pros use in their games.

The colleges tried to discourage the moonshot field goal by adopting the pro rule whereby unsuccessful tries were put back in play where they were kicked from, rather than the 20-yard line as previously mandated. But the kickers got so proficient, coaches may even defy the percentages by kicking from their own 20.

The kicking game has become such a bore that the NCAA even tried to eliminate the kickoff through the end zone by giving the ball to the receiving team on the 30 instead of the 20. They wanted to restore the excitement of the runback. It didn’t work. Coaches of kicking teams don’t care for the excitement of the runback, particularly if it’s for a touchdown.

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The kicking game is like the man who came to dinner. It ends up taking over the whole household.

The prospect of a game in which an athlete plays four quarters of violent, head-numbing football and then can only stand, nose bleeding and knee aching, and watch while a player he not only cannot rush or tackle but must not even touch kicks his team out of the Rose Bowl, might make a Jerry Lewis routine. Might even make a World Cup final.

But in the long run, it’s never going to play in Peoria. Or Pasadena.


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