TOBIN: The plight of the placekicker
Whenever a placekicker misses an easy chip-in field goal to win or tie a game, fans are conditioned to blame them for the team’s losses. These placekickers have one job: to put points on the board after the offense puts them in position to do so. While the position comes with a lot of pressure, I usually have no sympathy for those that fail to accomplish their task.
However, this past weekend, I cannot say in good conscience that I blame Virginia sophomore placekicker Alex Furbank for losing the game for his team against Connecticut.
Furbank, a Northern Virginia native, had never played in a football game in his life before entering the game Saturday. As a soccer player in high school, he continued playing soccer at Randolph-Macon College his freshman year before transferring to Virginia and walking onto the football team.
Why on earth, then, would it be at all reasonable to expect him to make a game-tying field goal, albeit a 20-yard one, to tie the game when his team had to rush onto the field with no timeouts?
The blame for this 13-10 loss cannot fall on Furbank. Instead, the fingers should be pointed at Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff for making irresponsible decisions both on and off the field.
It makes sense that Furbank has a spot on the Cavaliers’ roster. As a successful soccer player, he showed that he has kicking prowess with his 23-yard field goal in the first quarter of the game that gave Virginia a 3-0 lead — its first lead of the season. Yet, what doesn’t make sense is the fact that he’s starting without any prior football experience.
The reason for Furbank’s start in this game comes from a lack of depth at the placekicker position. For the past two seasons, the Cavaliers had a reliable kicker in Ian Frye. He went 11-12 last season on field goals within 40 yards, and finished his career with 45 field goals — the fourth most all-time for Virginia.
In the face of his departure, the program was left in a bind. To replace Frye, Mendenhall decided to start kickoff specialist redshirt senior Dylan Sims, who played in the first two games of the season. However, after Sims sustained an injury, Mendenhall had nowhere else to turn but Furbank, the only other placekicker on the Virginia roster.
The fact that Virginia only has two placekickers — one who has never attempted a field goal in his college career, and one who has never played football period — baffles me. Considering how pivotal the position is in deciding the outcome of a game, Mendenhall should have more carefully focused on the position. I understand these aren’t his recruits, so the blame cannot solely fall on him. But, in the offseason and ample time he had to prepare, he should have been able to supply his roster with kickers who have at least had some experience with football before.
If the lack of investment in a placekicker is not bad enough, Mendenhall’s poor clock management set Furbank up for failure with his last kick attempt. Using Virginia’s last time-out on the preceding Connecticut possession, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae needed to work efficiently to foster a comeback with 1:33 left in the game.
Starting on its own 25 yard line, Virginia managed to get all the way down to Connecticut’s nine yard line solely by passing the ball. This was a smart move to save time — incomplete passes result in no time running off the clock. Yet, for some reason, Anae drew up a running play on first down. While this gained the team four yards, it forced them to spike the ball on second down to stop the clock.
From there, Anae made his biggest mistake — drawing up yet another run, a designed quarterback draw for junior Kurt Benkert, on third down. With this leading to fourth down, the team had no time to stop the clock with a spike, and they had to rush their kicking unit onto the field. No matter how much experience a placekicker has, and no matter how close the kick is, it is difficult for any placekicker to make a kick under intense time pressure. Thus, without being able to set up properly, Furbank shanked the chip shot that would have sent the game to overtime.
This loss that Virginia fans have become all-too-accustomed to is not Furbank’s fault. He shouldn’t have even been playing in the first place, and the poor play-call at the end of the game didn’t make things easier for him. It’s time for the Virginia faithful to stop blaming him and to start holding the coaching staff more accountable.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @TobinBen.