TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 1: Kicker Tyler Bitancurt #40 of the West Virginia Mountaineers watches as a first-quarter field goal hits the goal post against the South Florida Bulls December 1, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
"West Virginia took over with 5:13 left on the clock. Six straight runs. Randy Coutu is trying to warm up his leg in hopes that he can have a chance to tie this game. Right now it is Phil Brady’s time to punt. Georgia has two time outs left. 1:45 left in regulation…
AND NOW THEY’RE GOING TO FAKE IT! BRADY THE PUNTER HAS GOT A FIRST DOWN! AND THAT MIGHT JUST SEW UP THE NOKIA SUGAR BOWL FOR THE MOUNTAINEERS."
In case anyone has forgotten, a special teams play sealed what some consider the biggest win in WVU football history. It was the only time I cried after a Mountaineer game. The bowl curse was over and then some. I’m sure you can list a series of special teams failures that cost us games. Miami’s Tremaine Mack blocked punt returned for TD in 1996. In 1983, Mountaineer Kicker Paul Woodside was a fraction short on a field goal to beat Pitt (he regularly cleared those distances to the delight of the WVU student section before each game).
Redshirt senior Tyler Bitancurt is our kicker and a primary reason why I’m confident this season will be WVU’s best ever. As a freshman he drilled a walk-off field goal over PITT, and I’ve loved him ever since (a great last minute comparison between two late WVU heroic kicks is posted HERE). While his sophomore effort was poor, last year he picked it up again by raising his field goal percentage to 72% - not to mention kicking the game winner against USF in Tampa. He’s experienced, gifted and ready to shine during his last year in Morgantown.
Most all of the pre-season talk about WVU special teams has justifiably focused exclusively on our potential Heisman Trophy candidate, Tavon Austin. Incidentally, Austin's odds of being seen as THE dominant playmaker in the NCAA went up with Tyrann Mathieu getting kicked off LSU’s team. However, I think Tyler Bitancurt will play as significant a role in WVU's special teams success. Bet on this fact: multiple games this year will come down to three points or less – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bitancurt has a chance to win a couple of them on the last play of the game.
A 2012 NCAA football rule change benefits WVU in a big way, too. Kicking off from the 35 means that we won’t be as susceptible to big returns – and a couple of years ago I pulled out what remained of my hair because of this facet of our special teams. Combine this rule change with new and improved special teams coaching and we’re looking pretty righteous.
Joe Deforest is the new Special Teams sheriff in town and he has coached Ray Guy Award winners and Lou Groza Award winners. Listening to the pundits and coaches, DeForest apparently has a masterful understanding of this facet of the game (one which Holgy irritatingly calls the "third side of the ball" - balls don’t have sides; that metaphor is used to talk about Offense vs. Defense – so he’d be better to say there are three phases to the game – but I’m being a bit bitchy).
However he phrases it, our head coach anticipates vast improvement in this area of our football team and we’ve got lots of reasons to trust him on that score.
Oh, did I mention that we have a kick off and punt returner named Tavon Austin? He’s pretty good.