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There’s history between UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and Arizona State

UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn (15) is congratulated by teammate Jerry Neuheisel after kicking a field goal against Cal last season.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This is the odd, and sometimes backward, world of a placekicker.

Two years ago, Ka’imi Fairbairn came away from UCLA’s football game against Arizona State with a bloody nose. That was a good day.

Last season, Fairbairn came away from the Arizona State game untouched. That was a bad day.

“I’ll take the bloody nose any time,” Fairbairn said.

On Thursday, No. 11 UCLA plays No. 15 Arizona State in Tempe in a matchup that for the third straight season could decide which team is champion of the Pac-12 Conference South Division.

The Bruins made it to the conference title game in 2012 because Fairbairn made a 33-yard field goal as time ran out for a 45-43 victory over the Sun Devils. He ended up on the bottom of a dog pile after that one, which was bloody but painfully sweet.

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Last year, he experienced a different kind of pain. Fairbairn missed two-field goal attempts against Arizona State, the second a 33-yarder with four minutes left that would have changed the complexion of the game in a 38-33 Sun Devils victory.

Fairbairn, a junior from Punahou High in Honolulu, sought solitude afterward.

“I knew what I did,” he said. “Nobody had to come over and tell me.”

Converting a kick requires perfect timing from three players — from long snapper to holder to kicker. But it’s the kicker who is on display.

Fairbairn knows he operates under the microscope and that his struggles on long-range kicks are common knowledge.

In three seasons, Fairbairn is eight of 16 on field-goal attempts of 40 yards or more. He is 23 of 28 from 39 yards and in.

So when his 47-yard kick split the uprights against Texas earlier this month, it was more than just another three points.

“That was good for him and good for us,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “I have never lost faith in Ka’imi. I see how he works. I know it’s important to him to be consistent.”

Almost all Fairbairn’s tries from distance have been long enough but sailed wide — including a 52-yard attempt in the rain against Stanford that allowed the Cardinal to escape with a 27-24 win in the 2012 Pac-12 championship game.

Fairbairn has worked with strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi to improve his leg strength, but that is only part of the challenge.

“Kicking is very much a mental job,” Fairbairn said. “There is only so much you can do to work on your technique and your strength. What I have done this year is focus on that one kick and not worry about the big picture.”

Mora rattled off a list of kickers he has been around in his coaching career, including Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson and Jay Feely, all NFL stars.

“Everyone thinks kickers are flaky,” Mora said. “None of those guys are flaky. I’m not saying Ka’imi is like those guys, but he has the same personality as those guys. He studies the game, he works at his craft. Now it’s about growing his confidence.”

Mora said he can help in that area.

“It’s my job to put him in good positions to make it,” Mora said. “Give him things I know he can handle, and then he’ll grow from there. I think he’s doing it.”

Two years ago against Arizona State at Tempe, a frantic two-minute drive left Fairbairn with a 33-yard attempt with two seconds left.

“Oh my God, everyone jumped on me,” Fairbairn recalled of the aftermath of his game-winning kick. “It was claustrophobic. I loved it.”

Last season, his miss left the Bruins trailing by five points. UCLA got the ball back with three minutes left but needed a touchdown instead of being able to work into field-goal range. The Bruins got as far as the Arizona State 45-yard line before holding penalties disrupted the drive.

“A miss like that could affect you big time,” Fairbairn said. “I block those out.”

Instead, he focuses on one thing before each kick — the spot where holder Jerry Neuheisel places the ball.

“That’s where the bone of my foot hits the ball,” Fairbairn said. “I visualize that and trust that he’s going to put it there.”

The rest should be easy.

“You’ve done the kick a million times in your head,” Fairbairn said. “It’s always the same.”

It was in Tempe two years ago.

It wasn’t in the Rose Bowl last season.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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