What Greg Montgomery perceived as Joe Paterno’s disdainful attitude toward him four years ago could have a distinct bearing on Friday’s Rose Bowl game between Michigan State and USC.
Montgomery is Michigan State’s punter, probably the best in the country, and in a close game between two defense-minded teams, the kicking game may make the difference.
“Montgomery puts us in a tremendous position with his punting,” Spartan Coach George Perles said of his senior kicker. “The punter really has a big effect on your defensive team. It helps when a punter can pin the other guys back against their goal line. Montgomery does that for us.”
Statistically, Montgomery figures to give the Spartans an extra 10 yards each time they exchange punts with the Trojans. He averaged 44.7 yards this year to 35.3 for USC’s Chris Sperle. And 13 of his punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Greg was a first-round draft choice,” Perles said. “He’s that good a talent. Ron Wolf, the Raiders’ chief scout, was at our practice Tuesday just to get a good look at him.”
The Raiders made National Football League history in 1972 when they picked a punter in the first round of the draft, Ray Guy of Southern Mississippi. Guy, seven times a Pro Bowl selection, retired last year.
So what has all this to do with Joe Paterno?
Montgomery, who played high school football in Shrewsbury, N.J., enrolled at Penn State as a kicking specialist in 1983. That year he played in 10 games, kicking off 58 times. But when it came time for the letterman’s banquet, Montgomery said, he wasn’t invited.
“Paterno told me I didn’t have enough game time,” Montgomery said. “That was bad enough but he also reneged on a promise that I could pitch on the baseball team in the spring. That was one of the things (assistant coach) Dick Anderson promised me when he was recruiting, but Paterno said I needed to work with the football team, that I was going to be his No. 1 punter.
“They had a strange attitude there, though. They treated all kickers like they were flakes. I never felt like I was part of the team.”
Before Montgomery went home for the summer he decided he’d had enough of Penn State and started looking at other schools.
The one he selected was an obvious choice. His father, Greg Sr., had played quarterback and corner linebacker at Michigan State on the same team with Perles in 1957 and ’58.
“I put in a call to George (Perles) and explained the situation to him and he said he’d take Greg after a red-shirt year that he had to sit out,” the elder Montgomery said.
“I think he went to Penn State first because he felt like a lot of young people, that they want to get away from the family. I went to high school in East Lansing (site of Michigan State University) and Greg’s grandparents still live there. He’d spent so much time there on vacations that it seemed like a second home to him.”
Greg’s younger brother, Stephens, is also on the Spartan team. A sophomore, he is the No. 3 fullback and plays on special teams. The Montgomery family never misses an MSU game, at home or on the road.
When Greg was a high school sophomore, he attended a camp for punters in Wilmington, Ohio, that was run by Ray Pelfrey of Sparks, Nev.
“Ray’s the punting guru of the United States,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been going to him for six years now and he’s still working on my technique and improving my hang time. That’s what the pros are looking for--hang time.”
This season, Montgomery changed his style, reducing his three-step approach to two steps. His average suffered, from 47.8 last year to 44.7, but Montgomery believes the change improved his punting.
“Surprisingly, you get more hang time with the two-step,” he said. “Your body is more over your feet and you get the ball up higher than you do with a three-step, where you tend to kick it lower. Lower and longer is no good if it gets to the back so soon he can set up his run before your coverage gets there.”
That’s what happened when Notre Dame’s Tim Brown ran back a punt 71 yards in the first quarter last September.
“It was a low line drive,” Montgomery said. “Perfect for him. On the second, though, I thought I got it off real good. It was 52 yards and had good hang time but Brown just did a great job. I was the last guy with a shot at him and he gave me a little dance step and was gone. I was standing kind of flat-footed and he was coming at me with his 9.6 hundred speed and it was no contest.
“I think I learned something then, though. I learned you have to be aggressive. I’d have had a better chance if I’d run right at him.”
Brown ran the second one back 66 yards as the Spartans lost, 31-8.
Montgomery learned something else that day, too.
“We didn’t kick away from Brown,” he said. “I think if we played them again, we would.”
Friday he might not have the same concern. The Trojans’ longest punt return this year was 30 yards by Randy Tanner, who averaged 7.6 yards for 24 returns.