The improbable finish to the Georgia Tech-Florida State game has turned into a teaching moment at practice fields across the country.
And it provides yet another lesson that the risks of attempting long field goals go beyond the likelihood of a miss.
FSU lined up to try a 56-yard field goal with just seconds left on Saturday. Instead, the Yellow Jackets’ Lance Austin returned the blocked kick 78 yards to beat the Seminoles, 22-16. That same evening, Texas State’s Brandon McDowell scored on a 100-yard return of South Alabama’s missed 53-yard attempt just before halftime.
“Shades of the War Eagles there versus the Roll Tides,” Texas State coach Dennis Franchione quipped after his team’s game.
Indeed, the play was reminiscent of the stunning conclusion of the 2013 Iron Bowl, when Auburn’s Chris Davis beat Alabama with a 100-yard return of a missed 57-yard field goal as time expired. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that play created a “heightened awareness” that missed field goals could be returned for scores.
Knowing the risks, though, hasn’t stopped teams from attempting difficult field goals with games on the line – even in a time when teams successfully execute Hail Mary passes nearly as often as they make long kicks.
One thing the three finishes had in common is that the opponent was kicking from at least 53 yards out. According to STATS LLC, Football Bowl Subdivision teams have made just 30 percent (12 of 40) of their field-goal attempts from at least 53 yards away this year.
Moreover, teams have made just 32 field goals from at least 53 yards out since 2014. During that stretch, FBS teams have completed 25 touchdown passes of at least 40 yards in the final 30 seconds of the first or second half of a game.
Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo is 4 of 6 in his career from at least 50 yards out, but his attempt last week was three yards beyond his career long of 53. Although South Alabama’s Aleem Sunanon is 10 of 13 on field goals this season, his 53-yarder against Texas State was his first attempt from beyond 49 yards.
“I didn’t think that their kicker could kick it that far,” Franchione said afterward. “I didn’t dream we’d take it all the way back for a touchdown, but let’s give it a shot. Brandon made me look smart.”
According to STATS, FBS teams have scored a combined 20 touchdowns by returning blocked or missed field goals since 2013 (10 in 2013, six last year and four this season). What makes the Auburn “Kick Six” and the Texas State play unique is the length of the returns and that they didn’t involve blocks.
And those types of returns are difficult to defend.
Players stationed in the end zone to catch missed attempts often are defensive backs or receivers. Blocking linemen lined up for the kick don’t have the speed to catch them, and the kickers and holders aren’t likely to make the tackle either.
“It’s not the most comfortable feeling knowing you’ve got tackles and big tight ends that are suddenly asked to tackle a guy,” Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze said.
The Georgia Tech play was unusual because it involved a blocked kick in which the ball was picked up well downfield rather than behind the line of scrimmage.
Patrick Gamble blocked the kick and said he initially thought the play was dead and started celebrating before the crowd noise helped him realize his teammate was running toward the end zone.
“Most of the time, when the ball crosses the line of scrimmage on a block, you don’t want guys to get around it,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “But it’s the last play of the game, so they had nothing to lose. It was really an exceptional play by (Austin).”
No wonder coaches across the country immediately started reminding their teams of what could happen. Jones said he showed his Tennessee players video of that play in a team meeting.
He wasn’t alone.
“We coached the Auburn-Alabama situation,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “(This is) another situation that has to be coached. We’ll cover it, and hopefully, if we got in that situation, we’re able to build a wall and make him run sideways.”
Perhaps the fantastic finishes might cause more coaches to hesitate before attempting a field goal rather than throwing deep if they’re at the opponent’s 35- or 40-yard line in the closing seconds of a tie game. Or maybe not.
“You think about it a little differently. … But those are two of the weirdest plays I’ve ever seen,” Freeze said. “It just doesn’t happen often.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.