Utah kicker Matt Gay stepped into position, eyed the goalposts 55 yards away and saw something that startled him. Oregon had stationed a player in the end zone, in case Gay's kick was short and created a return opportunity to end the first half of last Saturday's game.
Sound strategy? Maybe, but the Ducks' alignment became laughable when Gay blasted the ball through the uprights and beyond. “Just a little bit of disrespect,” Gay said good-naturedly this week, reliving the scene at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
This has been a weird season for the reigning Lou Groza Award winner, whose kicks have come in bunches. He made four field goals in an early October win at Stanford and a school-record six field goals against Oregon, after having attempted only seven in the first four games. In between, he kicked only extra points (six) in a rout of Arizona.
That’s the odd dynamic of the jobs of Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky, the 2016 Ray Guy Award winner. They need just the right (or wrong) level of performance from the Utah offense to create their showcases.
“It's definitely weird,” Gay said. “The offense needs to do good, but not great, for me to get an opportunity.”
Three finalists for each kicking award will be announced next week. Gay and Wishnowsky have excellent chances of making the cut. Until last weekend, Gay was having a low-key year in comparison to last season, when he was needed more frequently. He made 30 of 34 field goals in 2017; he’s now 20 of 23 after going 6 for 6 against Oregon, as the Ute offense failed to score touchdowns on four trips inside the 20-yard line.
“We just wanted to get Matt Gay some field goals,” quarterback Jason Shelley joked afterward.
The timing was good, with awards season approaching. Nationally, only two other kickers have made 20-plus field goals with a better percentage than Gay's .870 mark. Syracuse's Andre Szmyt is is 27 of 29 and LSU's Cole Tracy is 22 of 25.
NO. 21 UTAH AT COLORADO
When • Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Networks
Gay had one kick blocked in each of the first two games and also missed a field goal in the wind at Northern Illinois. He has been perfect ever since, making 18 straight field goals. The biggest difference this season is that Saturday’s 55-yarder was his first attempt from beyond 50 yards. Last season, he was 5 of 6 from 50-plus yards.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham could have given Gay a shot from around 60 yards in the last minute of the first half at Arizona State, but didn't trust his defense enough to risk giving ASU the ball at its 42-yard line if Gay missed. “That's [Whittingham's] call,” Gay said. But “do I feel confident I could step in and make that kick? Yeah.”
The evidence backs his belief. He's blasting his kicks lately, like a PGA Tour player compressing the golf ball. “Every time on those field goals, my foot's making really good contact,” he said. “It feels like it's really coming off my foot well. … Everything about my swing right now just feels really, really good.”
As the holder, Wishnowsky can attest to that, hearing the effect of Gay’s foot on the ball. Wishnowsky also is hitting the ball well, although he partly blames himself for blocked punts by USC and Oregon.
Otherwise, he's having another outstanding season. He went into the year with a training strategy of wanting his leg to feel better in November, and it's working.
“I'm ending the season feeling stronger than I have the last two seasons,” he said. “I'm happy with how the season's gone.”
Wishnowsky is averaging 47.0 yards, comparable to his 2016 average and ranking fourth in the country. That number tells only part of his story. Wishnowsky’s best attribute is rarely punting the ball into the end zone. Of his 38 punts, 16 have landed inside the 20-yard line — and nine of those went inside the 10, including three in a row at Washington State.
One of his few touchbacks came against Oregon, as his season-long, 68-yard punt sailed barely into the end zone. Wishnowsky usually dials his distance just right. That element doesn’t concern Gay, who gets to kick the ball as far as he likes.