By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — There was a time, in the spring, when Tyler Bitancurt wasn’t sure about himself.
That is out of character for the freshman out of Springfield, Va., for when it comes to placekicking he is supremely confident in his abilities.
But being what he is, a redshirt freshman, and coming into camp in the wake of Pat McAfee, who was probably the best two-way kicker the school every produced, he had much to live up to.
Then just to complicate matters as he was about to enter camp, along came Josh Lider, a senior transfer from a good Western Washington program that had just dropped football, leaving him looking for a place to kick.
When WVU brought him in, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a vote of confidence in Bitancurt.
“In a way I thought they might not have confidence in me,” he admitted late Saturday afternoon, having just put together what almost certainly is the greatest placekicking debut in the school’s history by hitting four field goals in four attempts. “But you can’t look at things like that as a negative. You have to take it as a positive. He gave me some competition. I can definitely say it made me better.”
Indeed, all through camp there was a battle royal among the placekickers, Lider vs. Bitancurt, senior vs. freshman.
Lider is no stiff. He had done well at Western Washington, but Bitancurt’s credentials out of high school were no less impressive. He had hit 15-of-20 field goals in his career with a long of 50 yards and had hit 107 of 108 extra points, including a streak of 70 in a row.
But that was high school and on Saturday on a pleasant, sunny afternoon, he had never really been in a situation quite like it.
He was surrounded by a sea of gold shirts, save for a small section wearing the Liberty red.
“I’d never been out there before 60,000 before,” he said.
That is what makes opening day always a roll of the dice. No matter what you did in high school, no matter what you did in practice, when the lights come on and 57,950 critics are in attendance, no one knows how you will react.
Bitancurt expected to be nervous, but said he was more “excited and pumped up than nervous” when he came through the tunnel and out onto the field.
Coach Bill Stewart had a plan in mind as the game began, a plan that was set up in part because he didn’t want to put too much pressure on a first-time placekicker.
“I told the team last Friday, from the 35-yard line to the 25-yard line, we are in four-down territory. We will not kick a field goal. Once we hit
the 25-yard line, then we’ll think about a field goal. I did not want to put a lot of strain on that youngster,” Stewart said.
Well, first possession the Mountaineers drove to the Liberty 21, just inside the perimeter for a field goal try. Bitancurt hit from 38 yards out.
His collegiate career was three minutes and seven seconds old.
With 2:04 left in the half, another drive stalled at the Liberty 18 and the Mountaineers leading by 7. It was an important kick, one that Bitancurt calmly canned from 35 yards.
Two for two now, and he would get another shot before halftime as a WVU drive puttered out at the Liberty 28, a bit further than Stewart wanted to his young kicker to kick from. But only 20 seconds remained in the half, so he sent him out there.
Just as calmly he nailed it, this from 45 yards.
That is a jumbo field goal, although Bitancurt wouldn’t know it.
“I don’t know how far it was. I just go out and kick,” he said.
It is, certainly at this point, unfair to offer comparisons between him and McAfee, whose address these days is in Indianapolis where he punts for the Colts. The two were not close when McAfee was here for his final year, he being a senior and Bitancurt a redshirt freshman, although he did offer as much help as he could.
But they are different personalities, McAfee more of a free spirit and comedian than is Bitancurt, but the observant ones in the stands noted that Bitancurt was wearing a No. 40 jersey, McAfee’s number.
“I didn’t pick it out. It was given to me, but I like it,” he said.
After hitting the 45-yarder, Bitancurt was called upon one more time, pumping one home from 36 yards out with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter. This one was close to being blocked, a defender getting the tip of a finger on it.
“The last one was low and was tipped, but he has such a strong leg it still went through,” Stewart said.
Even though Bitancurt had as much success as he did this week, Stewart expects to follow the same game plan with him next week.
“From the 35 to the 25-yard line, going in, I’m going to consider it four-down territory. I don’t want to give them the all on the 35-yard line. If we get to the 25 and don’t score a touchdown or miss a field goal we can live with that. That’s a 75-yard drive,” Stewart said.
But don’t bet if the game is on the line and it comes down to a long field goal or a “Hail, Mary” pass that Stewart won’t think the odds are better on making the long field goal.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.