Spring FCS college football has been a kick . . . where that’s landed is another story
today at 5:57 am
It’s funny how the fate of a game can so easily be decided by the kick of an oblong ball. Well, funny may not be the right word depending upon your perspective.
Take the case of this past Saturday, for example. Three of the four games involving Illinois FCS teams were in many ways decided by such kicks.
Here’s our Prairie State Pigskin rundown.
North Dakota State 21, Illinois State 13
The Redbirds appeared to have risen off the turf after the fifth-ranked Bison built a 14-0 lead.
Sparked by its defense, ISU rallied to within a point with a fourth-quarter touchdown.
That tie never came about as NDSU’s Spencer Waege broke through and blocked Aidan Bresnahan’s extra point attempt, crashing the Redbird celebration.
Meanwhile, back in the first quarter, North Dakota State’s Jake Reinholz broke away on an 85-yard return off the foot of ISU punter JT Bohlken. It was the third-longest punt return in NDSU history.
“We spend a lot of time of special teams, probably more than most teams do. It’s a critical piece to what we do,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said postgame.
Southern Illinois 17, Northern Iowa 16
Following a dramatic comeback with its third-string quarterback, SIU appeared on the verge of a heart-breaking loss to No. 4-ranked Northern Iowa.
The Salukis, likewise ranked in the Top 10, clung to a precarious 17-16 lead as preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference kicker Matthew Cook of UNI lined up for a potential game-winning field goal.
In 2019 Cook had made 19-of-24 field goal attempts en route to being named first team all-conference. Moreover, Cook had gone 4-for-4 against FBS Iowa State, including a 50-yarder.
Against SIU Saturday, Cook had already been successful from 26, 34 and 41 yards.
Then, came his final kick.
As the official Northern Iowa website described it, Cook “uncharacteristically missed”. His kick sailed wide left, sending the Salukis into hysterical pandemonium.
Tennessee State 21, Eastern Illinois 20
In Nashville, the outcome of the game literally swung on the kicks of two different legs (nearly three, if you read on).
With both teams seeking their first wins of the spring, EIU jumped to a 17-3 halftime lead. However, the Panthers stalled in the second half as the Tigers rallied.
Tennessee State took the third quarter kickoff and quickly drove down to score at touchdown at the 12:35 mark. Kicker Antonio Zita, the Ohio Valley Conference leader in field goal percentage in 2019, missed the extra point.
Thus, when TSU scored another touchdown in the third quarter, the Tigers were forced to attempt a two-point conversion to tie the game. That attempt failed and Eastern Illinois held a 17-15 lead.
Zita rode a tidal wave of emotions in Sunday’s contest. His 51-yard field goal gave TSU its first points back in the waning moments of the first quarter.
Yet, in addition to his missed extra point, Zita failed on a 38-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.
What followed seems like something out of a bad Hollywood script. With 4:10 remaining in the game, Zita lined up for a 62-yard field goal attempt. EIU dropped receiver Matt Judd back into the end zone awaiting a possible return should the kick fall short of its mark.
Judd, a transfer from the University of Illinois and a devout Chicago White Sox fan, watched Zita’s kick sail over his head and through the uprights as if it were a home run ball thudding in the bleachers.
Zita’s boot tied the OVC record and pushed the Tigers into an 18-17 lead.
Then, things got even crazier. EIU strung together a final drive that stalled at the TSU 14-yard line. The Panthers trotted out true freshman Will Orth for a potential lead-changing field goal.
However, the Panthers weren’t fast enough getting the snap off and took a five-yard delay of game penalty. EIU head coach Adam Cushing then sent in “long-distance” kicker Stone Galloway for the re-positioned attempt.
Galloway hammered the 37-yarder through, putting EIU back on top 20-18 with just 41 seconds left.
The Panther joy was short-lived. Starting on its own 33 and with just 34 seconds remaining, Tennessee State completed a 48-yard bomb into EIU territory. After a short run, the Tiger let the clock wind down to three seconds, called timeout and sent Zita into the game.
He promptly nailed the game-winning 35-yarder as time expired.
But the story doesn’t end there. Last May Zita announced on Twitter that he had put his name into the transfer portal. After all, he had made 20 of 24 field goals in 2019, which stands as the TSU single-season record and fifth all-time in the OVC.
Apparently, there were no takers for the 5-foot-9 junior. We’re guessing that should Zita decide to seek greener grass again this off-season, he may well find more suitors.
After all, Eastern Illinois probably wouldn’t mind seeing him go.