It was a mostly sunny, 57-degree afternoon in Boulder, Colorado, and the Washington State offense was driving.
The Cougars had gone three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, but this next one had been much more successful: 13 plays in, they were at the Colorado 20-yard line in a scoreless game.
But there, they stalled. Fourth-and-2. Mike Leach kept Gardner Minshew and the offense on the field, the senior quarterback threw incomplete toward Easop Winston Jr., and the Cougars turned the ball over on downs.
Two more times that afternoon, the Cougars’ offense stalled near the red zone needing fewer than 5 yards for a first down. In the second quarter, ahead 7-0, Mike Leach opted for the 39-yard kick, which then-freshman Blake Mazza made. In the third, ahead 17-7, Leach went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Colorado 25-yard line, and Minshew threw incomplete.
Last weekend against Stanford, two similar situations arose. In both cases, Leach sent out the kicking team. As he has every time this year, Mazza drilled the ball through the uprights.
“I’m not real fired up about that. I thought we should have scored touchdowns,” Leach said after the Cougars’ 49-22 victory over the visiting Cardinal. “We scored some, but I (feel) like I’m kinda tired of kicking field goals.”
And yet, this year, his team keeps doing it – at a pace better than any he’s coached since his days at Texas Tech.
With two Pac-12 games remaining – and potentially a bowl game after that if Washington State beats Oregon State on Saturday or Washington on Nov. 29 – Mazza is 18 of 18 on his field-goal attempts as a sophomore, one of only five kickers in the FBS who remains perfect this season.
Of those five kickers, Mazza has the most makes. Only seven kickers have made more field goals overall, and TCU’s Jonathan Song (21 of 22) is the only one of those seven with only one miss.
Against Stanford, each of Mazza’s field goals came with the Cougars ahead and just about at the 20-yard line. His first, on a fourth-and-10 at the Stanford 18-yard line, made the score 22-14 and gave the Cougars a response to consecutive Stanford touchdowns.
His next kick, a 38-yarder, came after halftime and extended that lead to 25-14. In the fourth quarter, Mazza booted a 35-yarder to make it 35-22. Each of those two kicks came on fourth-and-4 plays, situations similar to the ones against Colorado a year ago.
Any number of factors determines whether a coach sends out a field-goal unit – yards to go, the score in the game, momentum, to name a few – so it is difficult to correlate decisions, even from game to game.
But if ever Leach would have confidence in a kicker, this is the year.
In all his years at Texas Tech, from 2000-09, Leach never had a kicker as reliable as Mazza, who already has made more field goals than any Red Raiders kicker did in a season under Leach.
At Washington State since Leach became head coach in 2012, only Erik Powell has made more than 18 field goals in a season. He did it twice, going 20 for 26 in 2015, and 20 for 24 as a senior in 2017.
In the season between those, Powell had a particularly bad start, missing consecutive kicks from 38, 39, 42, 22 and 35 yards (one in each game) until finally making his first against UCLA, from 36 yards out. Powell made 8 of his 9 attempts the rest of the 2016 season, but just one came from beyond 40 yards.
Mazza’s 18 ties him with Drew Dunning (in 2001) for the sixth most in a single season for a Cougars kicker. Dunning holds the top two single-season totals, going 27 of 31 in 2003 and 22 of 33 in 2002.
Dunning holds the program’s all-time record for kicks made, going 68 for 88 in his career. Mazza’s 28 (in 33 attempts) already rank ninth, and his current percentage (84.8) is the best in school history among players with at least 30 attempts.
For a coach like Leach who is loathe to send the kicking team out, it appears that accuracy has made an impression.
“The fact that he’s done a good job makes it a lot more appealing,” Leach said.
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