By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
To be honest, the last thing anyone expected was that the hero of West Virginia University’s opening-day victory over William & Mary, as ugly as it may have been, would be Nick O’Toole, the punter.
If you’d said you would have said Paul Millard, the quarterback, no one would have blinked an eye, even though it was uncertain if he would start or how much he would play.
If you’d said Josh Lambert, the placekicker, you might believe it for every week someone somewhere kicks a game-winning field goal.
But a punter?
A guy who comes in a game on fouth-and-12 and kicks the ball to the other team, this one being a junior college transfer in his first game for WVU?
How could that happen?
The Mountaineers had played bad enough to lose and seemed to be in the process of doing it. They were down 17-7 at the half and it might have been worse had he not forgotten about a 32-yard punt on his first one to hit one for 57 yards before halftime to make life tough on the Tribe.
But now we go to the fourth quarter and the score is tied and WVU is in a punting situation at its 27-yard line, the game resting on field position.
O’Toole took the snap, stepped forward and sent one sailing 56 yards down field, senior Darwin Cook, a starting safety filling in on special teams, hustling down and making the tackle at the William & Mary 22.
“I felt like Rudy of Notre Dame, being there on special teams,” Cook smiled as he thought of that moment
Fast forward to later in the fourth quarter, WVU now punting from its 13, still tied.
“Yeah, we were backed up and I saw the returner and he was lined up at the 50, so I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get it over his head,’” O’Toole said. “The wind was behind me, and it was great snap from John (DePalma) and Cook got down there fast.”
This time he punted it 60 yards and, yes, Cook was down there again for the stop.
Two monster punts, two monster tackles from the man who goes by the nickname “The Cookie Monster.”
In the end, those punts did in William & Mary, WVU using the field position to set up the winning touchdown by freshman Wendell Smallwood.
It was big time from O’Toole, who turned that first 32-yard punt into a 50.6 average.
Certainly those punts had to be his favorite moment from his first big-time college game, right?
“My favorite moment was being with the guys before we went out onto the field in the weight room,” he said. “The fog (from the fog machine) was coming in. You can’t see anything, and you hear the countdown. That was my favorite part of today.”
Amazingly, O’Toole was maybe the coolest character out on the field at the moment of truth.
“Coach (Dana) Holgorsen asked me about that last night. It’s kind of like I told him. I build it up more in my head, but once I get on the field it all goes away. It’s all muscle memory. I have to stay true to my technique and hope my muscle memory takes over and I hit the kick,” he explained.
Even when he stood there and knew that if they returned the punt into WVU territory it could lead to a field goal that cost the game.
They didn’t. In fact, on those five punts in which he averaged 50.6 yards, William & Mary managed to earn only three return yards. Not three yards per punt.
Three total yards.
All of that is what they call hidden yardage.
“He was averaging over 50 yards a punt and that’s hidden yardage that put our defense in a great position all day,” Holgorsen said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.