Stover gets leg up over last year Game-winner helps kicker atone for his '96 failures

September 15, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For a guy who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Matt Stover is obsessed with failure.

At the start of the Ravens' training camp two months ago, Stover reflected on an unsettling 1996 season, in which he missed two game-winning field-goal attempts to contribute in a distasteful way to a 4-12 year.

Stover buried some of that futility yesterday. With 34 seconds left and the game riding on his slender shoulders, he left last year behind with a 37-yard field goal that split the uprights and left the Giants to ponder a stunning, 24-23 defeat.

Stover still has the "most accurate" distinction, having made 133 of 165 field-goal attempts, 80.61 percent, and he remains perfect in 1997 with a 6-for-6 performance. But his first five field goals sounded like mere footnotes in the post-game locker room.

"They pay me to win games," Stover said. "Like I said in camp, I don't care if I only make 48 percent of my kicks this year, as long as I win games for this team. The team got me into the right situation today, and they pay me to do what I did.

"Last year, we were in that situation a couple of times, where they [the kicks] didn't go through. There will be more opportunities to do the same thing this year, and I know I've got to be ready. Today, I was ready."

Stover looked quite ready before the game, when he hit several booming kicks from beyond 40 yards. He even blasted a 53-yarder into the wind, which was swirling before kickoff but had somewhat calmed by the fourth quarter.

Stover eliminated the wind factor by uncorking a strong kick that had a good 15 yards to spare.

"You had to hit it strong," Stover said. "There was enough wind so that if you hit it wrong, the wind was going to mess with you, but I hit it good, right down the middle. There was no question when I hit it."

Once the Ravens cut their deficit to 23-21 midway through the fourth quarter, then began a possible game-winning drive from their 32 with 2: 59 left, the question was would they get close enough for Stover to decide the contest.

By the time Earnest Byner ripped off a 12-yard run to get into Giants territory at the 45, Stover was standing alone in deep thought on the sideline. Six plays later, Byner turned a Vinny Testaverde dump pass into a four-yard gain to the 20, and the field-goal unit trotted onto the field.

The Ravens then "iced" Stover by calling a timeout with 38 seconds left. The idea was to let as much time run off the clock as possible, without forcing Brian Kinchen to rush the snap.

"There were no surprises there," Stover said.

The Ravens regrouped while Stover stood alone again.

"Kickers are a different breed, they're in their own world, and you don't want to say anything to him," said Mike Frederick, part of the blocking unit. "We had all the confidence in the world in Matt, especially if we got him down there in field-goal range. We were sure he was going to make it, as long as we protected him."

The way Stover recalled it, the play happened "in slow motion" from his perspective, beginning with a perfect snap from Kinchen and a smooth hold by Greg Montgomery.

Said Kinchen: "It's just like riding a bike to me, since I've done it for so long. I never see them [the snaps] get caught. I assume it was a good snap. Greg gave me the thumbs-up."

As the kick sailed toward the end zone, Stover thrust both arms skyward. As the ball descended into the stands, the Ravens jumped up and down in celebration on the field and along the sideline. Frederick grabbed Stover and lifted him several feet off the ground.

"It's been a long time since we won a game like that," Frederick said. "Our emotions just took over at the end."

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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