For a change, kickers aren't Navy's goats

At Air Force, Blumenfeld, Shuey produce in clutch

October 09, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

First came the agony. The ecstasy followed.

In the mile-high air of the Rockies, Geoff Blumenfeld and Eric Shuey, Navy's place-kicker and punter, respectively, found the giddy-headed feeling of redemption Sept. 30. They finally became the targets of praise instead of criticism.

Blumenfeld kicked a 30-yard field goal with four seconds left to subdue archrival Air Force, 24-21, and virtually guarantee that the Commander in Chief's Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of competition among the three major service-academy teams, will remain in Annapolis.

Shuey averaged 48.4 yards on five punts, including a career-best 69-yarder and a 62-yarder, and three times pinned Air Force inside its 20-yard line, out-kicking the Falcons' Donny Heaton, who had boomed a 90-yard punt in a previous 2004 game.

Entering next Saturday's 41st consecutive attempt to defeat Notre Dame, Navy coach Paul Johnson has received a little security about what he said earlier this season might be "the worst kicking game in America."

Just five days before the dramatic, nationally televised victory in Colorado Springs, Blumenfeld had missed two long field-goal tries and Shuey had had a punt blocked that led directly or indirectly to five Vanderbilt points. The Navy offense and defense eventually rescued the kickers from their woes and pulled out a narrow win.

So, what happened at Falcon Stadium brought immense satisfaction.

"I don't know about being redeemed," Blumenfeld said. "Nothing can change the past. But it certainly made that game memorable. It just felt wonderful, but I can't ride one kick forever. We've got more ahead of us."

"It just felt good to go back to normal punting," added Shuey, who had tried rugby-style kicking with mixed results in two games. "I was discouraged when I had to use the rugby kick. I feel more confident with a normal kick. It was pretty much a career day for me, one of the best days I've ever had."

Air Force, which traditionally has a proclivity for blocking kicks, was prepared for the rugby style, stacking the right side with rushers the first time Shuey dropped back. He surprised them.

Johnson shifted to the normal style for just those reasons - the possibility of a block and the element of surprise. Plus, Shuey had been showing signs of improvement.

"I worked hard in the summer, but when I came back, I couldn't put it together for a month or two," said Shuey, a junior from Hacienda Heights, Calif. "I had no consistency. But I kept getting better and better."

"My big thing is he got them all off," said the coach. "I really thought in the spring he could be our punter. I don't know what happened over the summer, but when he came back in fall camp, he punted awful, so out of necessity we had to find a way to get through the first few games. It's not like I wanted to rugby punt. I've never done it in my life, but as a coach you try and find something to give your team a chance to win."

For two games, Johnson tried Blumenfeld, a senior from Granite Bay, Calif., in the dual role of place-kicker and rugby-style punter. The experiment did not go well; Blumenfeld was 0-for-4 in field-goal attempts and had his problems with shanks and, on one occasion, an inability to run for a first down, while punting.

But he was as cool as they come at Air Force when coach Fisher DeBerry tried to ice him with two timeouts. With the game, the trophy and year-long bragging rights at stake, his kick sailed through the middle of the uprights. Despite his teammates' encouragement.

"I've got to do a better job of teaching my teammates how to trust me," Blumenfeld said. "Everyone wanted to tell me something or pat me on the back. I felt there'd be plenty of time for that after it was over."

The coach trusted him implicitly despite his earlier misfortunes. "I never lost confidence in him," said Johnson. "I never had a doubt he was going to make that kick. If I did I would have tried to score and not put it [the ball] in the middle of the field."

Blumenfeld said that during the long wait for the fateful kick, he concentrated on fundamentals, a realization of the situation and practicing.

"The timeouts gave me a chance to take a breath and to take swings [at the ball] on the field rather than on the sideline. It's different. Kicking is a mental game. I knew I could do better. And the confidence in me meant the world. Coach told me beforehand, `All right, you're going to win the game.' I told him, `Exactly. Here I go.'"

Johnson, the perfectionist, is far from satisfied with the overall kicking game, citing breakdowns at times in punt coverage, punt returns, kickoff coverage. "We can't ever get them all in the same deal," he said.

But he now has two kickers who have experienced euphoria.

Next for Navy

Matchup: Navy (5-0) vs. Notre Dame (3-2)

Site: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Next Saturday, noon

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

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