Arizona's onside kick had a winning strategy

Arizona's onside kick had a winning strategy
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Kickers dream of making the winning field goal. The Arizona Wildcats' Casey Skowron hasn't had that chance yet. A successful onside kick will have to do.

Skowron and Arizona pulled off an onside kick late in last Saturday's miracle comeback against Cal, helping to eventually set up the 47-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass that stands as an early candidate for the college football play of the year. The onside kick was a perfect marriage of design, execution and divine blessing from the football gods.

But any Arizona luck was the residue of the kick's design, which Coach Rich Rodriguez said he borrowed from someone - he couldn't remember who after the game - but it doesn't take a football genius to figure out how the Cats maximized their long odds.

It's all about the numbers.

Simple math.

Arizona lined up with a kicker on either side of the ball - Skowron to the left as he faced Cal, Ethan Keyserling, a walk-on senior from Virginia Tech, to the right.

Rodriguez put five players to the left, four to the right. Cal responded with six to Arizona's left and four to the right (and another player deep). This was UA's choice: Have Keyserling kick to the left, where the Cats were at a 6-to-5 disadvantage, or have Skowron scoot the ball to the right, where it was an even fight, 4-on-4.

See? Simple math.

With 3:30 left after Arizona had closed to 45-37, Keyserling ran up and faked a kick to the left, with Skowron coming in to hit a bouncer high toward a Cal player, who grabbed the ball and tossed it out of bounds. You can't do that. That "illegal batting" penalty was one of two Cal fouls on the play, giving UA a chance to re-kick.

The teams lined up in exactly the same formation, so Skowron and Keyserling looked to the sideline and got the same call from the coaches, who make the left-right choice.

"My mortgage payment is too high to rely on some guys who might be watching SpongeBob SquarePants," Rodriguez said of that decision. "They are both smart kids, but we make the call based on alignment."

Skowron, unhappy that his first attempt took such a high bounce, focused on getting a lower hop. He did. As the ball shot through a gap in the Cal players, Arizona's Tra'Mayne Bondurant raced in to grab it.

"I was trying to make that first hop smaller, so they didn't have the opportunity to step up," Skowron said.

Arizona did instead. Two of the Wildcats' past 13 wins have been decided by miracle comebacks, fueled by onside kicks. That's good, right?

Rodriguez pulled something different out of his bag of tricks in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl, when Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final minute in a 49-48 victory over Nevada. Instead of the double-kicker approach, he had John Bonano drive the ball right at a Nevada defender, with Arizona looking for a deflection.

That's exactly what happened. The ball skittered, popped up and bounced high off Nevada's Duke Williams. Marquis Flowers recovered for UA.

"It hit the dude in the face and came right back," Flowers said after the game. "It actually hit him in the face. I was in the right spot at the right time."

Skowron, a junior, was on that trip to Albuquerque while redshirting.

"That's another one we practice as well," he said of that style of onside kick. "I personally like that kick more because I can put a lot more power into it. From my perspective, it's a little bit more predictable. I think I'm better at that one.

"But if Coach Rod wants it one way, he's going to get it one way," Skowron added of the two-kicker approach. "And it worked, too, so I'm not one to tell him otherwise."

Skowron has had an excellent season so far, making 10 of 12 field-goal attempts, including a 49-yarder in the opener. He said he's comfortable from within 55 yards, which means the coaches probably trust him up to 50.

So there was no thought of a 64-yard attempt to win the game on the final play against Cal. That Hail Mary worked out just fine.

"The adrenaline was flowing. I was ready to go in," Skowron said of the final drive. "I was actually hoping it would come down to a field goal because I was confident I was going to make it. It didn't come to that, and we still got the win, so it was great."

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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