The one field goal Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien missed in the 2012 season will be a tough one to forget. With the final seconds ticking off the clock and Northwestern down by a point to Nebraska at a red-coated Ryan Field, Budzien’s 53-yard opportunity to gift the Wildcats a difficult victory missed wide right.
While the miss was a particularly tough one to swallow, it was the one and only blemish on a near-perfect redshirt junior season for Budzien. He went 19-for-20 on field goals and 50-for-50 on extra point attempts to continue his perfect career record of never having missed a point after.
The Wisconsin native was a contender for the 2012 Lou Groza Award presented to the nation’s best collegiate kicker and he will certainly be on the pre-season watch list going into 2013. Even the Nebraska game miss was mere inches right of the goalposts.
Budzien’s relaxed demeanor in person is extremely impressive. If you ask him what’s going through his mind when he lines up for a pivotal, high-pressure kick attempt, he generally says something along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just kick it.”
The lack of a 50-plus-yard field goal is still a shortcoming on Budzien’s track record – his longest successful in-game kick was a 47 yarder in his sophomore season. The Nebraska miss was the only kick beyond 50 yards he’s ever even attempted. Nonetheless, he went six for six on attempts between 40 and 49 yards last season, which is a feat surpassed by very few kickers in the college game.
All this is simply to say that Northwestern is one of the fortunate few teams that have a consistent and reliable place kicker at their disposal. That is a huge advantage for Fitz and company — and not just on fourth down. The ability level of the place kicker affects many aspects of the offensive game plan.
What level of risk should be incorporated into a play call at the 30-yard line on third and 8 in the fourth quarter? Pass or run? Go for it on fourth down, send out the kicker, or send out the punter? How conservative should we play in the other team’s half? How important is it to maintain possession of the ball? Do we really need to lay Kain Colter’s body on the line?
The kicker sitting on the sidelines heavily influences all of these questions and more. In Budzien’s case, he’s even reported before that he has a pretty good arm—leaving open the possibility for fakes if the situation ever called for it (and if we can ever erase the memory of the end of the 2010 Outback Bowl). While fans may forget about him until he’s called onto the field, a play caller thinks about the position a lot more than one might imagine.
An ironic testament to this truth comes in the form of last season’s Northwestern – Penn State game. Sam Ficken’s abysmal 2 for 8 season field goal performance leading up to the game meant that the Nittany Lions avoided sending him on the field at all costs, instead calling fourth down attempts, risky third down plays, and other repeated touchdown-or-bust ultimatums.
The strategy paid off. Penn State went a remarkable 5 for 6 on fourth down attempts, which ultimately was the deciding factor in the Wildcats’ 11-point loss. Believe it or not, a significant contributing factor to one of Northwestern’s three losses last season was the inadequacy of the other team’s kicker.
Such an occurrence is rare, but it does demonstrate the profound impact a kicker’s ability – or lack thereof – can have on a game. Sam Ficken did not even have to walk on the field to contribute heavily to his team’s victory.
Add to Budzien the return of dependable senior punter Brandon Williams and arguably the nation’s best punt returner in Venric Mark and suddenly special teams shapes up as one of the defining factors of Northwestern success in 2013.