Just last fall, Tyler Bitancurt was the toast of the town.
Now, in the eyes of so many of those adoring fans of a year ago, he’s just toast.
Welcome to the world of a place-kicker.
You might remember the moments after his 43-yard field goal with no time left on the clock delivered West Virginia University a 19-16 revenge victory over Pitt in Puskar Stadium last year, one of the most memorable placekicks in Mountaineer history.
He had the city, the state and the part of the world that is the West Virginia nation at his feet.
Today they are nipping at his heels as a group of angry mutts, upset that he’s already missed more field goals — three — this season than he missed all last year, two of this year’s misses in a 20-14 giveaway loss at LSU.
It proves once again that you need two things to make it as a kicker:
1. A strong, accurate leg.
2. Skin that is 3 inches thick.
“I feel the same as I did last year. That’s just how football goes,” he said during Tuesday evening’s player interviews before this Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home game against UNLV. “It goes both ways. You make some; you miss some.
“On offense and defense, you have good plays and bad plays,” Bitancurt continued. “There’s no excuse for what I did, except to get better and make sure I don’t do it again.”
For whatever reason, place-kickers are expected to be perfect. Perhaps it is because their total playing time, even if they are a regular, may not add up to 30 minutes on the field over an entire season, and that includes the time standing around and waiting while being iced by the opposition.
The appreciation level is always wrong, for what they do looks so simple. With all the children today now playing soccer, everyone can kick a ball.
But the placekick is one of the most intricate plays in football. It must be done quickly, getting the kick off in just a couple of seconds, and when you think of all that can go wrong, it is enough to drive you batty. The snap must be good; the hold must be good; the blocking must be good; even then, the kicker’s fundamentals must be good.
And that’s the automatic part. Far tougher is to control the mind of the kicker.
“You’ve got to be calm,” Bitancurt explained. “You have to do the same thing every time. Everything has to be consistent. When I missed, I wasn’t myself.”
Most important, a place-kicker has to be calm both through the good and the bad times. It is important to keep emotional stability because he too often finds himself in the most emotional of situations, the game right there on his foot and teammates, family and thousands upon thousands of fans holding their collective breath as he approaches the football.
So, win or lose, kick good or kick bad, Bitancurt tries to maintain an even, low-key approach both on and off the field.
The problem is, he can’t always maintain that approach.
“After a win, I have a better time with my family when I go out to dinner,” he admitted. “After we lose, it’s a little more bummed out. No one likes to lose. The fans don’t like to see us lose, but being on the team is totally different. We go through it just as much.
“Yeah, if I make or miss my kicks, it has an effect, but you just move on. You just have to move on, forget about it and find ways to improve. You have to find a way to get better. You can’t dwell on the past — you keep moving forward or you’ll keep missing.”
And so it is that he studies film of his technique. This year he has had two kicks blocked up the middle, one at Marshall, the other at LSU. Both were kicked too low.
“It happened the same way, right down the middle,” he said. “If you get blocked from the side, it means I’m moving too slow. You can always kick the ball higher. It’s my fault, no matter how many people are there, even if they are loading the middle.”
So, he goes back to the drawing board, sees why some kicks have gotten up quick enough and high enough, why others haven’t. Whatever correction is necessary is made in practice, because come game day you can’t be thinking fundamentals.
“You go from kick to kick, but I never forget the ones I miss,” Bitancurt said. “You remember the misses and you learn from your mistakes. The only frustration that comes is from knowing I didn’t perform to the best of my ability. I can’t get down on myself. It’s too important for the team that I move on and do not reflect too much on the missed kicks, there are so many games we still need to win.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.
Just last fall, Tyler Bitancurt was the toast of the town.
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