Whenever Utah's offense crosses midfield this season and approaches fourth down, kicker Matt Gay will grab his helmet and stand near Kyle Whittingham. But in that moment, he won't be trying to talk his coach into ordering a field goal.
“My lobbying is done in practice,” Gay said.
College football’s reigning Lou Groza Award winner has done a very persuasive job this month. His 62-yard field goal in a scrimmage — “It would have been good from 70,” offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said — is one illustration of how his range has increased. And he already holds the school career record with five field goals of 50-plus yards, all in one season.
In July, Gay joked about how the demands of the Ute offseason conditioning program almost made him forget that kicking was included in his job description. “You kind of lose focus on the fact there's a ball involved,” he said.
The strategy worked, though. His leg feels stronger, Gay said, as the results are showing.
And his ability to connect from 60 yards gives Utah even more of a scoring weapon, once the offense gets into the opponent’s territory. Gay is accurate; he made 30 of 34 attempts last season. He also kicked a winning 57-yarder on the last play of the Red-White Game in April.
But what if he misses, even once in a while?
On a field goal attempt of 62 yards, the ball is snapped from the 45. That's where the other team would take possession, and that's why Gay's ability creates a dilemma for Whittingham. “You don't want to give up field position,” Whittingham said.
After fielding several questions about this topic, Whittingham settled on an answer: It's subjective.
There will be times when the nature of the game dictates that he asks Mitch Wishnowsky to punt the ball inside the 10-yard line, rather than serve as Gay's holder for a field goal (freshman Maddie Golden has won the long snapping job).
In other circumstances, Whittingham will authorize a fourth-down conversion attempt by the offense, as he did 19 times last season with 11 successful plays.
As much as Whittingham hopes to maximize Gay’s senior season, many variables will come into play. They’ll have a pregame conversation about the altitude on the road, wind and other weather factors will help them determine Gay’s maximum distance that day. And then Whittingham will see how the game goes.
In last September's meeting with lowly San Jose State, Whittingham let Gay kick a 56-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. Would he have made the same call against a tougher opponent? Maybe not.
It's also true that Gay's ability played a role in Whittingham's controversial decision to call a timeout in the last minute of regulation in tie game at Washington in November. Whittingham said he wanted to get the ball back to give Gay an opportunity, but the Huskies responded by completing a long pass that led to a winning field goal as time expired.
That sequence of events is instructive, though. Whittingham will be inclined to be aggressive at the end of a half, knowing the Ute offense needs only to get near midfield for Gay to have a genuine chance of making a kick. And in that case, going into halftime, there would be no field-position consequences.