Before the conclusion of Duke’s practice every Friday, the entire team huddles around kicker Ross Martin as he attempts a simulated game-winning field goal. His teammates are uncomfortably close, yelling, dancing, doing anything to attempt to distract him.
“Get the blood pressure going a bit,” Martin said with a smile on his face.
His attempt in last Friday’s practice was from 42 yards, he said. But in the 9-7 win against Boston College Saturday, Duke needed Martin to be good from 53 yards to win the game, as it turned out.
And Martin nailed it with room to spare.
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The Blue Devils (4-1, 2-0 ACC) won without scoring a touchdown for the first time since Nov. 4, 1978 (a 3-0 win against Wake Forest). All nine points came from Martin, Duke’s senior kicker who has handled those duties in all of his four years. Martin had a 36-yard kick in the first quarter to make it 3-0, then one early in the second to put it at 6-0. Then with 3:40 left before halftime, Martin was called on to kick into the wind from 53 yards out.
And that was it, as far as points went for Duke.
After BC (3-2, 0-2) found a surprise and sudden burst of offense on a 66-yard touchdown pass to cut it to 9-7 in the third quarter, Martin’s final field goal proved to be the difference in a game where both teams left points on the field.
“People say, do you get nervous. Yeah, for sure I get nervous,” Martin said. “It’s just a matter of controlling that and harnessing that extra energy into a positive, realizing it’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to feel those things. It’s not like you should be calm. And that’s experience. Now senior year, I’m a lot better at it than I was my freshman year.”
Boston College’s Colton Lichtenberg was a prime example of the other end of that spectrum, a true freshman who melted under the pressure of his own game-winning attempt. With 3:35 left in the game, the Eagles lined up for a 45-yard attempt. Lichtenberg, kicking because punter Alex Howell is too injured to handle both punting and kicking, missed. And he missed badly.
In fact, his kick was so far off the mark that the scorekeeper originally announced in the press box that Duke had blocked the kick, but a further review showed that wasn’t the case. It was just an epic shank that landed way left and short of the goal post.
Martin is 9-for-9 on field goal attempts this year, and his 53-yard make from today tied his career long, which was also on a day when offense was scarce in a 13-10 win at Virginia Tech in 2013. For his career, Martin is 58-for-69 (84 percent).
Last week against Georgia Tech, head coach David Cutcliffe opted to pass up a field goal from about 51 yards into the wind. But he reversed that decision this week, figuring points would be at more of a premium against the nation’s most stringent defense, in terms of yards per game allowed (and those numbers include a 14-0 loss to Florida State in which the Seminoles scored one offensive touchdown and amassed just 217 yards of offense).
But then in the fourth quarter, holding a 9-7 lead, Cutcliffe’s thinking changed. He did not send Martin out for a 51-yard attempt facing the same direction as his 53-yarder, in part because the wind might have been stronger then, but more because BC’s offense had been ineffective all day (save for one big play).
But to complete that line of thinking, Cutcliffe expected punter Will Monday to pin the Eagles inside their 10-yard line. That didn’t happen, as his punt traveled just 20 yards before going out of bounds at the 14-yard line.
That was the first of two critical mishaps by Monday late in the game. The last one almost did Duke in (and if BC had a quarterback who consistently completed passes, it could have been quite problematic). After the offense went three-and-out, losing three yards and eating just 15 seconds of clock, Monday’s ensuing punt went just 25 yards, setting up the Eagles at the 50-yard line, down just 9-7 with 3:13 left in the game. The Eagles inability to consistently complete passes was a problem, as they couldn’t run with no timeouts.
A sprint-out pass to beat Duke’s bringing-the-house blitz was open, but true freshman Jeff Smith’s throw was off the mark, and David Dudek had to stretch out to catch the ball thrown behind the sticks on fourth-and-2. He fell, downing himself with no defenders in between him and first-down territory.
In a game where points are at a premium, every missed opportunity is magnified. For Boston College, the 45-yard shanked field goal hurt. A bobbled snap on a 42-yard attempt in the second quarter hurt, too. The Blue Devils were fortunate to have Martin, who went 3-for-3, making up for Monday’s punting errors and a third-quarter drive that came away with no points despite Duke having it at first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
The results Martin achieves on Saturday can be traced back to his work on Fridays.
If he misses in the game-winner drill, he doesn’t get another chance, and the Blue Devils don’t have to run or anything like that.
It’s one kick, one shot. Martin usually makes them, but if he misses, everyone has to move on to the next play. Just like in a game.
“It’s tremendous pressure,” linebacker Dwayne Norman said, “But I know Ross can handle it.”