Dec. 28, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was 18 degrees with a 13 mph wind out of the northwest for the Wisconsin-Minnesota kickoff.
It was 42 degrees with a 10 mph wind out of the southwest for the Penn State-Wisconsin kickoff.
It was in the mid-70s and sunny for UW's first bowl practice in Orlando, Fla.
"It's like Christmas all over again," said placekicker Jack Russell on the day after Christmas.
"The ball is definitely jumping off the foot a little more, we're excited," said punter Drew Meyer.
It's no secret why. Both the Minnesota and Penn State games were 2:35 p.m. kickoffs. Both lasted over three hours. Both specialists dealt with less than ideal kicking conditions that worsened.
Meanwhile, the long-range forecast for Wednesday's Capital One Bowl game in Orlando between South Carolina and Wisconsin calls for a high of 72 degrees with a 9 mph out of the northeast.
"My foot doesn't hurt, the ball are flying, it feels really good," reported Russell after the Badgers went through their first Florida team workout Thursday on the Freedom High School practice field.
"I really didn't try to change how I kicked," he said of the final two regular season games. "It's just a matter of trying to stay warm and knowing that I can hit the same ball in the cold weather."
But it does hurt to kick a cold football?
"It does to a certain extent," Russell said. "It's kind of nice I'm not doing kickoffs because that's probably worse. I feel kind of bad for Andrew (Endicott, UW's kickoff specialist)."
Endicott is from California. Russell and Meyer are both Wisconsin natives. "When I'm only kicking a few times a game," Russell said of the cold weather, "it's something I can bear with."
Keeping your foot warm is one thing. Keeping your hands warm is another.
"You have a better grip on the ball without it being so cold," said Meyer, acknowledging the obvious importance of catching the snap. "It's part of making sure you have a clean operations.
"We have enough faith in each other -- between James (McGuire) and Connor (Udelhoven) and myself -- whether for field goal or punt, that I know the snap is going to get there."
McGuire and Udelhoven handle the snaps for punts and placements. Both are products of the Cretin-Derham Hall High School program in St. Paul, Minn., a sub-freezing training ground.
"With it being cold," Meyer said, "the leather gets stiff and it doesn't travel as far. The air in the ball isn't as warm and it just kind of feels like you're kicking a rock."
Russell has been rock-steady over the last four games. By converting eight of his last nine field goal attempts, his late season development has addressed one of the early season question marks.
In November, Russell went 2-for-2 against BYU (38, 26); 3-for-3 against Indiana (31, 36, 26); 2-for-3 against Minnesota (31, 20) and 1-for-1 against Penn State (48).
A turning point for Russell was a field goal that didn't count on Nov. 2 at Iowa. On fourth-and-2 from the Hawkeyes' 36-yard line, the Badgers called timeout with 1 second left in the first half.
Russell nailed the 54-yard field goal, a career long. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had called a timeout before the snap, nullifying the kick. Ferentz burned all three timeouts and "froze" Russell.
He wound up missing from 54. But the aborted "make" was a confidence builder. "It helped finally being able to see one go in," he said. "It just kind of kick-started the rest of my season."
The capper was Russell's 48-yard field goal with 4:13 remaining in the fourth quarter against Penn State. It kept the comeback hope alive by pulling the Badgers within one possession, 31-24.
"That's what we work hard for as a specialist group -- to try and rise up in big moments like that," said Russell, whose previous long field goal had been from 38 yards against BYU.
"I knew I hit it well enough to make it there. I did get a little bit under it to let it float in. I was just looking for that signal from the ref. It felt really good to still give us a shot at winning the game."
Russell had kicked a field goal from the same spot on the field and the same distance -- going in the same direction -- in Waunakee's 45-0 win over Hartford in the 2011 WIAA Division 2 title game.
It was a D-2 state record.
Russell's longest career field goal was from 49 yards in the 2012 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star game for Divisions 1-3 in Oshkosh. The South beat the North, 37-0.
As it was, Russell never kicked a game-winning field goal in high school.
"We beat a lot of teams by a pretty good amount," he said.
Waunakee won 36 straight games and three consecutive state championships.
Has Russell visualized kicking a game-winner since coming to Wisconsin?
"I just visualize each and every kick kind of the same," he said.
Recommended reading for Russell has been "The Inner Game of Tennis: the classic guide to the mental side of peak performance." Timothy Gallwey was the author. Pete Carroll wrote the forward.
Gallwey has written about "overcoming self-doubt and anxiety and lapses in concentration" -- all of the things that can keep a player from attaining success in any sport. Russell is a believer.
"One of the things that he always talks about is visualizing the process and visualizing the end result," said Russell, a 6-foot, 172-pound sophomore. "I try to visualize that.
"But," he confessed in the same breath, "I've never known how awesome of a feeling it would be to make a high-pressure situation kick before."
South Carolina's Elliott Fry, on the other foot, er, hand, experienced that feeling when he kicked a 40-yard field goal in the second overtime to give the Gamecocks a 27-24 victory at Missouri.
Fry, a true freshman walk-on from Frisco, Texas, also kicked four field goals in a 19-14 win over Florida, including two clutch kicks from 22 and 43 yards in the final 6 minutes, 43 seconds.
The 6-foot, 150-pound Fry has converted on 15 of 18 field goals overall. His long is 45. It should set up to be a potentially interesting dual between Fry and Russell at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
"Jack is playing now with much more confidence," Meyer said of Russell. "He's kicking the ball great; it's really jumping off his foot. I'm excited to see what he's going to do in the bowl game."
UW assistant coach Jeff Genyk has programmed Russell to stay even -- keeled.
"He always tells me to never get too high or too low," Russell said, "just focus on the process of my kick and trust myself because if I have confidence in myself I should be able to make every kick."
By his own admission, he did get a "little bit excited" after making the long field goal against Penn State. Rightly so. What was telling was that Kyle French also got excited for Russell.
Russell beat out the French, the incumbent, for the No. 1 placekicking duties.
"I think our relationship has really gotten stronger," said Russell, who's rooming in Orlando with French, a graduating senior from Menomonee Falls, Wis. "We're pretty good friends."
Russell pointed to "the way he handled himself being put in that situation" after French got beat out "because there's a lot of different ways that he could have taken it," and most were negative.
French stayed positive. "And he gave me a little bit of confidence," Russell said, "in that he wasn't hoping that I would miss but he was out there being my biggest supporter on the field."
In speaking for the kickers, Russell added, "I really think it's important for the specialist group to have confidence in your teammates and to have everyone pulling for you."
It has played out that way for the UW specialists and French has been at the core of it all.
"Kyle is one of my best friends," Meyer said. "I'm extremely proud of how he's handled the whole situation. He has been extremely supportive.
"He hasn't checked out at any point which would have been easy for a guy in his situation. It just speaks to his character and what he's about and how much he loves this team and this program."
Meyer used the Christmas break to decompress at home with family and friends.
"It's good to remember where you came from and what got you to where you are," said Meyer, a redshirted sophomore from Hartland, Wis. (Arrowhead High School).
"It helps motivate you going into the bowl. I'm just excited for the opportunity for one last game with these seniors. We want to try and send them out the right way."
Last Sunday, Meyer watched former UW punter Brad Nortman come through with some pressure kicks in Carolina's victory over New Orleans, which clinched a playoff berth for the Panthers.
Despite kicking in a rainstorm, Nortman averaged 50.8 yards on his eight punts, two of which were downed inside the 3. "He did a tremendous job in that weather," said Meyer.
Anything less would be unacceptable, he implied. "That's what we're supposed to do in rain, sleet or even snow sometimes in our case," Meyer said. "We're supposed to do our job."
Meyer could be a key weapon for the Wisconsin defense against South Carolina as far as dictating field position and limiting the Gamecocks' freshman punt return specialist, Pharoh Cooper.
Opponents have returned only 13 punts against the Badgers. The longest return has been 17. Meyer has forced 15 fair catches and had only two touchbacks while dropping 19 kicks inside the 20.
"Especially with time off (the holiday break), you can't let things slip," he said, "whether it's from the kicking or return standpoint. A bad fielding decision or a bad kick can swing games either way."
In last season's Rose Bowl, Meyer averaged 44.6 yards on seven punts. He had three downed inside the 20. It was his first appearance on the postseason stage and he acquitted himself well.
Meyer should recognize what kind of an impact a punter can have in a bowl.
In the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl, Florida State crushed Wisconsin, 47-13. But the Most Valuable Player in Orlando wasn't Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder, it was punter/kicker Graham Gano.
Not only did Gano average 48.2 yards on five punts, but he put his first three inside the UW 3. One was downed on the 1 yard line; one went out-of-bounds on the 1; the other went out on the 3.
There are many variables in the kicking game, not the least of which is the weather. But there is one given for Meyer: he will most assuredly "keep his head on a swivel" covering any punts in Orlando.
Caution might be the reaction for any punter after seeing what happened to the Cincinnati Bengals' Kevin Huber, who was blindsided by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin.
The collision left Huber with a broken jaw and a cracked vertebrae. The NFL subsequently fined Garvin $25,000 for the block on what the league office labeled as a "defenseless player" i.e. Huber.
"Obviously the guy (Huber) got hit really hard and I feel awful for what happened," Meyer said. "He didn't see the guy (Garvin) coming and it could happen to anyone on the field."
In fact, Wisconsin defensive lineman Konrad Zagzebski, who's 6-foot-3, 278 pounds, was covering a punt against Indiana when he got blindsided by a blocker and decleated. He was not seriously injured.
"Sometimes you'll see a guy at the last second kind of come at you to block," Meyer said, "but not nearly to the level that it happened to him (Huber). It's a situation where you have to be alert.
"We're not the most muscular guys on the field or the biggest guys. But it's more of an extreme when one of us gets hit. You have to keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings."
Any notion that punters/kickers should just run off the field to avoid harm doesn't sit well with Meyer. Or, the 5-9, 166-pound Endicott, who has five tackles on kickoffs this season.
"We're football players like everyone else," Meyer said. "We're not as fast or as physically gifted, but we can always stick our head in there and it's always fun to do that, too."
Both Meyer and Russell plan on having some fun in Orlando with the different events that have been scheduled for the players from both teams, including trips to Walt Disney World.
"Last year was nice (in Pasadena) but it wasn't this warm," Russell said. "We'll try to get some sun, kick back and relax but we'll stay focused on the end goal -- and that's getting a bowl win."