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December 3, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Bitancurt not a typical placekicker

MORGANTOWN — As a general rule, kickers are an odd breed.

You might remember one who played here in this town not too long ago, Pat McAfee, now one of the best punters in the National Football League … when he’s not found running around naked in the downtown canals.

Then there was the Mountaineers’ greatest punter of all-time, Todd Sauerbrun, who while playing with the Carolina Panthers decided to put the “whammy” on Tampa Bay placekicker Martin Gramatica, with whom he had feuded for several years.

Well, whatever kind of “mental hex” he put on Gramatica worked, for he missed three field goals in a 21-14 Carolina victory, which led Tom Sorenson of the Charlotte Observer to write “Sauerbrun went to college at West Virginia. They know secret mountain stuff up there.”

We could, of course, go on and on, getting in Garo Yepremian, the Lebanese tie-maker who made hundreds of important field goals in the NFL but is remembered for Super Bowl VII when he had a field goal blocked.

With his Miami Dolphins leading 14-0, all he had to do was fall on the ball, but he tried to make a play of it, picking it up and awkwardly trying to throw the football. It slipped out of his hands and went straight up into the air. On its descent he batted the ball right into the arms of Mike Bass, who ran it in for a touchdown that made the game closer.

We bring up this discussion today because the toast of Morgantown is one Tyler Bitancurt of Springfield, Va., the man who kicked a 28-yard field goal as time ran out to defeat South Florida on Thursday night and give West Virginia a share of the Big East championship.

We do this because Bitancurt is the antithesis of the stereotype of the whacky kicker, a serious, down-to-earth kid who has ridden the emotional roller coaster through his career. He went from beating arch-rival Pittsburgh on a last-second kick — his fourth field goal of the game — in the Backyard Brawl in 2009 to suffering through a dismal season in 2010 but beating Marshall with an overtime field goal that year before capping it off with his championship heroics in Tampa.

Mostly he has done it quietly, efficiently, without a hint of insanity, at least until the last-second kick went down the middle on Thursday night, launching him off into what would have been a jubilant victory lap had he not been wrestled to a halt by holder Mike Molinari, allowing him to be mobbed by his teammates.

Kickers generally become somewhat flaky because they live much of their lives within their own minds. They may go on the field three, four, five times during the game for one play, almost always an important one that can turn the game, be they punter or placekicker, but they are left mostly to their own thoughts.

Why even on Thursday night, when Bitancurt was sent in to try the winning field goal and iced by a timeout, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said not a word to him, not even one of encouragement.

“I ignore those guys. The more you talk to them, the more you screw them up,” he explained.

Considering the antics his punters have put him through this season, you can understand why Holgorsen lives by the motto, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all,” when it comes to his kickers.

Bitancurt admitted that’s just the way he likes it. He is quiet by nature anyway, and the last thing he wants as he’s concentrating on going in to kick a game-winning field goal is a lot of distracting talk, be it encouraging or not.

“As soon as we got into range everyone was turning and looking at me, but the good thing was everyone was looking at me with belief,” he said. “They were saying, ‘You’re gonna win this thing; we believe in you.’ They didn’t say much, and that’s what I like. I don’t like people chirping in my ear.”

A confident look, a smile, maybe a “go get ’em” is all he wants or needs.

“The problem comes when I see people with doubt,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way my teammates handled it, giving me support and confidence going on the field.”

And so it was that he was left to his own thoughts as he set up for the kick, then sent it soaring through the same uprights he had hit on his first try, one that just barely missed.

“Just relief and excitement would be the main thing (you’re thinking),” Bitancurt explained. “It was the seniors’ last regular-season game. The coaches gave us a goal at the beginning of the season, and that was to be Big East champions and we accomplished that, so a lot was going through my head.”

He did have more than a few things working in his favor, perhaps the realization that the score was tied and at worst, had he missed, it would force overtime being the biggest thing. That had to ease the pressure some, although the only athletes who consider the consequences of failure are the ones who normally fail in such situations.

What helped most was the fact that he had been in that situation before and handled it, even as a freshman against Pitt, although he never really considered the achievement as anything special because he was a freshman.

“The way I like to look at college football is that it’s one level. It’s not freshman, sophomore or whatever. It’s not JV or varsity. It’s the same level. If you’re a senior, it might be your last chance, but if you are a freshman you are expected to do the job,” he said.

“If you have a freshman running back, he has to perform. Everyone expects you to do your job.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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