Giving slump the boot

After 0-for-5 start to begin season that nearly cost him his job, kicker Egekeze finds footing, gets back in groove for Terps

Maryland

November 06, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,jeff.barker@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK - Rain had been falling for much of the afternoon as Obi Egekeze steeled himself for a 20-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds of a tie game against North Carolina State on Oct. 25.

The footing was becoming increasingly treacherous, but Maryland's senior kicker wasn't fazed. "My career long is 54 in the rain [in high school]. That definitely gave me confidence about the ability to kick in the rain," Egekeze said. True to form, Egekeze converted the game-winning kick.

Conquering the rain, he said later, was easy compared with overcoming a mysterious season-opening funk that left him one or two misses from losing his job.

Egekeze's turnaround couldn't have been more dramatic - five straight misses followed by 10 straight makes.

"I tried to keep thinking that the most important kick is the next kick," said Egekeze, who is 11 for his past 12 entering tonight's game at Virginia Tech.

His coaches believed the kicker needed only to hit one to relax. They seemed determined to stick with Egekeze as long as he found his touch before the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule began against Clemson in Week 5.

As it turned out, Egekeze's confidence returned just in time. He ended his slump by making his first three kicks of the season against Eastern Michigan in Week 4, allowing the coaches to take a deep breath of relief.

"I would compare it to a basketball player who is streaky," offensive coordinator James Franklin said. "You get into a rhythm, and you start to feel it."

Said Egekeze, a graduate student in international finance who hopes to play in the NFL, "After those first couple [makes], you just definitely feel very comfortable."

Egekeze's season began when he thudded a kick off the crossbar in a 14-7 win over Delaware. He hit the upright when the Terps needed points the next weekend in a 24-14 loss at Middle Tennessee State. A miss against California in the third game left him 0-for-5, and the media were beginning to ask coach Ralph Friedgen whether he planned to replace Egekeze.

Egekeze, highly recruited out of Augusta, Ga., had entered the season 17-for-23, sixth most accurate in Maryland history. But suddenly, uprights had become his enemy.

The irony is that Egekeze sometimes tries to hit the uprights in practice. "I still practice trying to hit it," he said. "You're practicing hitting a straight ball."

But he certainly didn't want to hit any more in games.

Egekeze declined to blame his slump on the change of holders this season. Last year's holder, walk-on Matt Goldberg, accepted a scholarship in March from the university's M Club. That meant Goldberg couldn't remain on the team without counting against the team's scholarship limit of 85.

Punter Travis Baltz became the holder instead. "You don't build chemistry [with the holder] overnight," Egekeze said. But he said he and Baltz work smoothly together now.

To regain his confidence, Egekeze turned to Maryland's fraternity of kickers. He solicited help from three former Terrapins: Jess Atkinson, Dan Ennis and Nick Novak.

He said the best advice was to block out distractions - particularly doubt - and to swing through the ball. He reads Bible verses the night before games to relax.

"I think Obi's had a good career," Friedgen said. "He's kicked well after the first five he missed. He was one of the top kickers in the country when we recruited him."

Egekeze said Friedgen offered solid guidance before the N.C. State game-winner. That kick was about the same distance as an extra point.

"He's like, 'Obi, you realize within the course of your time here you maybe have kicked 200 of them?' " Egekeze said.

"I was like, 'You know what, you're right.' "

TERPS TONIGHT

Matchup: Maryland (6-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) at Virginia Tech (5-3, 2-2)

Time: 7:30

Site: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

Series: Maryland leads 15-13

Last meeting: Virginia Tech won, 55-6, in 2004 in Blacksburg.

Maryland offense vs. Virginia Tech defense: Virginia Tech has won 87 percent of its games the past five years at Lane Stadium. The Hokies have won 14 of 17 games on ESPN's Thursday Night Football. They are adept at creating turnovers by pressuring the quarterback. Maryland will hope to get its short passing game going - screens and quick-developing plays - to counter pressure.

Maryland defense vs. Virginia Tech offense: The Hokies present a quarterback mystery. Starter Tyrod Taylor and backup Sean Glennon have ankle sprains and are questionable. Third-stringer Cory Holt will start if the others can't play. The Terps will be aided if LB Dave Philistin, their second-leading tackler, can play. He's questionable with a shoulder injury.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 17, Maryland 13

Jeff Barker

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