James Wilhoit thought he had just lost the game for Tennessee -- because the Volunteers couldn't beat Florida, not after Wilhoit yanked what should have been the tying extra point wide to the right -- when Coach Phillip Fulmer called him over.
"Keep your head up," Fulmer said. "You're going to win this game."
In a season in which kickers seem to be going out of their way to show why they're called "extra points" rather than "gimmes," Wilhoit became the most unlikely hero of them all. Not only did Wilhoit, who looked like a broken little boy on the sideline following his miss with 3 minutes 40 seconds left, get another chance, he converted the field goal attempt from 50 yards out to give the Volunteers a 30-28 victory.
"We talk about it all the time," Fulmer said yesterday, "about how the most important point is the extra point. A lot of games, year in and year out, will be lost like that. That's something you never take for granted, and I doubt if he'll ever take another one of those for granted."
No one in the SEC -- or across the nation -- can afford to take extra points for granted this year. LSU, quite famously, won its season opener Sept. 4 only after Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna missed an extra point -- his third of the day -- in overtime. The Tigers, though, were on the other side of that bit of fortune Saturday.
Not only did LSU's Ryan Gaudet miss an extra point after the Tigers' only touchdown against Auburn, but LSU couldn't take advantage when the favor was returned. Auburn tied the score at 9 with two minutes remaining, and considering Auburn had converted 190 consecutive PATs, John Vaughn seemed sure to put LSU away. Vaughn, though, missed. The bigger gaffe came from LSU cornerback Ronnie Prude, who was called for a personal foul, giving Vaughn a second chance. He converted, and Auburn sneaked out with a 10-9 victory in which there were no bigger plays than the extra point.
Coaches spend most of the preseason telling fans that special teams can be as important as offense and defense. No place is that more true than at Ohio State. The Buckeyes might not be very good offensively -- they gained just 137 yards against N.C. State on Saturday -- but Mike Nugent kicked five field goals, including ones of 46, 47 and 50 yards, to provide a relatively easy 22-14 victory. A week earlier, Nugent nailed a 55-yarder to beat Marshall.
Need more tales of redemption, one that ties this whole kicking theme together? Take Serna. No one east of the Mississippi had heard of the 5-foot-7 redshirt freshman until he gagged against LSU, costing the Beavers a chance at knocking off last year's co-national champions and leaving Serna with his head in his hand -- and out of a job. John Dailey replaced Serna as OSU's top kicker -- until the fourth quarter of Saturday's game.
Dailey missed two makeable field-goal attempts -- from 42 and 34 yards -- before Serna replaced him in the fourth quarter of an unnecessarily tight game against New Mexico. Serna sealed the 17-7 win by hitting a 35-yarder.
Whatever the redemptive powers of that kick, it had none of the pressure Wilhoit faced before 109,061 people in Knoxville, Tenn. The sophomore had made all 50 of his extra points before pulling his 51st -- at what seemed like the worst time possible.
When Tennessee stopped Florida and got one last shot, Fulmer quickly asked Wilhoit how close he needed to be. "Coach," Wilhoit responded, "I'm good from there."
Except the Volunteers were at the Gators 40, setting up what would have been a 57-yard attempt. Instead, they got one more completion from freshman quarterback Erik Ainge to the 33, and Wilhoit had his chance.
"He hit it, and it just boomed off his foot," Fulmer said. "I knew -- it sounded like a gun going off -- that it was hit really well."
Well enough that he'll be able to laugh off the one miss of his career. But all of those misses in different stadiums across the country only emphasize to coaches that they need to find someone who can make those kicks, and they need to make them when it counts.
"He should make 100 percent of those," Fulmer said. "That's what he expects, and that's what we expect."
Croyle, Alabama Are Hurting
The good thing about scheduling cream-puff opponents: Your team can gain confidence and work on execution. The lousy thing: Even cream-puff teams can get your guys hurt. Alabama Coach Mike Shula was going to pull quarterback Brodie Croyle after the first series of the second half of the Crimson Tide's 52-0 pounding of Western Carolina. On that series, Croyle tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was lost for the season.
"It just leaves a big hole in your stomach for a lot of reasons," Shula told reporters after the game. The Tide, 3-0 for the first time since 1996, will now turn to 6-foot-3 sophomore Marc Guillon, who will get his first start Saturday at Arkansas.
Lest anyone think Bill Callahan's arrival at Nebraska and Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie's gunslinging ways mean the Big 12 is now a passing league, look at the national rushing rankings. Three of the top four runners in the nation are from the Big 12: Oklahoma State's Vernand Morency (second at 187 yards per game), Texas's Cedric Benson (third at 184.5) and Kansas State's Darren Sproles (fourth at 183.3). . . .
Weird Division I-AA result of the week: New Hampshire, which last week beat Division I-A bowl hopeful Rutgers, gave back all that momentum by losing at home to William & Mary. Division I-AA upset of the week: Maine beating Mississippi State, 9-7, dropping Sylvester Croom to 1-2 in his first year as the Bulldogs' coach.