When the unstoppable Wisconsin offense quickly became the storyline Saturday afternoon as the UW football team handily defeated No. 19 Northwestern 35-6 on Homecoming Weekend in Madison, it covered up the biggest blemish Wisconsin has been dealing with this season: the kicking game.
Buried in the second quarter between a pair of drives that led to a one-yard touchdown by senior running back James White and a 71-yard dash for a touchdown by redshirt sophomore running back Melvin Gordon, redshirt junior Kyle French missed his fourth field goal of the season — a 38-yarder that got caught in the wind and pushed left of the upright.
Exit Kyle French.
One drive later, sophomore Jack Russell, who would take the extra point on the next Wisconsin touchdown, had replaced French as the new Wisconsin kicker for the rest of the game.
At halftime, ESPN’s Shannon Spake reported that Russell would be the man to take field goals in the second half should the situation arise — a fact that head coach Gary Andersen confirmed in his post-game press conference.
Unfortunately for Andersen, the move to Russell at kicker doesn’t bode much better for Wisconsin football and its fans. In fact, it’s worse.
On the season Russell has taken (and missed) just one field goal from 32 yards against Tennessee Tech on Sept. 7, and in his short career at UW, he has never made a field goal in a game. Yep, you heard that right. While it may only be a small sample size of three field-goal attempts over two seasons, Russell has missed from 33, 41 and 31 yards.
So where does that leave things as Wisconsin heads to Illinois next week?
Well, to put it bluntly, not in a very good position, and to put it even more bluntly, this situation is not purely French and Russell’s fault, but the coaches’ as well — a fact that Andersen admitted after the game.
What he did not mention, however, when he addressed the kicking struggles this season is the role that confidence plays in a kicker’s ability to do his job.
Similar to free throws in basketball, within a certain range, field goals are expected to be nearly automatic for kickers, but when a coach openly doubts his player’s ability to do the job, the results will suffer.
Week in and week out Andersen is asked about the state of the kicking game at his Monday press conference, and each week he offers the same reply: Both kickers are competing for the starting job.
While healthy competition is often cited as a motivating factor when it comes to getting the best out of a player, it’s not a guarantee. Quite simply, not every player responds well to that type of constant competition.
Andersen, like former head coach Bret Bielema before him, has already experimented with using both kickers earlier in the season, as both French and Russell shared duties in Wisconsin’s victory of Tennessee Tech — and that right there may be the very root of the problem.
The constant back and forth has left both kickers worse for it as nothing is more embarrassing and humiliating than having thought you had finally earned the starting, before having it stripped right back at the first sign of trouble.
Andersen has clearly shown both of his kickers that he does not trust either of their abilities, but unless he plans to have an open tryout for a new kicker in Wisconsin’s upcoming bye week on Oct. 26, these are the two that he is stuck with.
With that in mind, Andersen would do well to put his faith in one of these two kickers — probably French — for the rest of the season and build him up. Name him the starter and, barring any really horrible mess-ups, keep him as starter.
French has shown that he is capable of making the field goals that Andersen requires of him (think back to his 42-yarder against Ohio State), albeit very inconsistently and often not at the most important of times.
If the team moves on with that in mind, then it can build its game plan around the harsh reality that French is really only consistent kicking field goals between 20 and 29 yards (he is 2-2 this season from that range).
While this probably means that Wisconsin won’t be looking to French in any late game situations as the clock expires (let’s be honest, French breathed a sigh of relief that he never got a chance to take that final field-goal attempt against ASU on that fateful evening in September), they probably won’t be in that situation the rest of the way through the season anyways. None of Wisconsin’s Big Ten opponents the rest of the way have a winning record in the conference yet and only Iowa, Penn State and Indiana have wins in the conference through the first two weeks.
So while this possibility might not leave anyone ecstatic, it’s really the only new option Andersen and Co. have left.
After all, things can’t get any worse, right?
Nick is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. Disagree that French’s limited range is the way to go this season? Want to see Russell get another shot? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet him @np_daniels.