Senior kicker Jason Gingell pondered a reporter’s question about what would go through his mind when he lined up for a game-winning field goal.
“I don’t know to be honest with you,” Gingell said at Michigan Media Day in early August. “I can’t really compare it to anything, because I haven’t done it.”
It took just one game before the first-year starter felt the sinking feeling of missing such a kick. His 37-yard attempt with six seconds left didn’t even have a chance to split the uprights after Appalachian State’s Corey Lynch swatted it to the field turf.
The Mountaineers’ kicker, Julian Rauch, speculated on the emotions Gingell felt after Lynch thwarted his chance to be the hero.
“First, he’s probably jealous of my situation,” said Rauch, whose kick 20 seconds earlier held up as the game winner. “Then, he’s thinking about his. He hates it for himself, he looks at his teammates and their disappointment and his heart is hurting for everyone. A lot of the blame and the eyes get looked on his part, but it’s really a team effort.”
After the graduation of four-year starter Garrett Rivas, the place-kicking position was a question mark for Michigan heading into the 2007 season.
Rivas was thrown into the same situation as his replacements when he arrived on campus five years ago. The Wolverines had just cycled through a combination of Philip Brabbs and Adam Finley before Rivas settled into the position. Four years later, he had been named to the 2006 All-Big Ten team and walked away from Michigan the leader in career points.
Carr dubbed Gingell Rivas’s successor more than a week before the opener.
And Gingell quickly saw the downside to stepping onto Michigan Stadium and feeling the finger of blame point in his direction.
Following the miss, Gingell, a Michigan fan since childhood, slowly trotted off the field, eyes cast to his feet after running Lynch out of bounds to end the game.
Now, he’ll just have to follow his own advice.
“You just got to leave it behind you,” Gingell said back on media day. “You just got to forget about it and stick it the next time. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s history. You can’t do anything about it.”
The story for the first game has already been written, but what kind of a character would relish the love-hate role of the Michigan place kicker? What does it take to block out the 110,000 fans and zone in on two yellow posts with the game on the line?
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr casts an imposing shadow.
The coach always stands behind the kickers during the scrimmage in practice and offers one piece of advice: “Make sure you don’t miss.”
Senior K.C. Lopata says it’s Carr’s attempt at distraction, and it’s the kicker’s job to move past the glare.
The three competitors – sophomore Bryan Wright, Lopata and Gingell – for the job Gingell won have never experienced game-time pressure as Wolverines, but their coaches do their best to simulate it.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who works closely with the kickers, along with Carr gather the entire team around the group during the special teams session in practice, which features some unique trash talk.
Senior captain Jake Long knows Lopata is a fan of the movie Kingpin, so he makes sure to voice memorable lines from the film to distract his teammate.
“After a while – not to say it’s not nerve-wracking at all – you learn ways to cope with the nerves you get in practice and use them to get a little bit of adrenaline so you can really get some extra pop on the ball,” Lopata said. “I tend to like it, and I think most of the guys do.”
DeBord, who splits his duties between the tight ends, running the offense and working with the kickers, can’t spend as much time as he would like with the group, but he’s confident in their abilities to prepare mentally for the job.
The offensive coordinator corrects any mistakes he sees on the fly – like when one his pupils oversteps with his plant foot – and watches practice film to further analyze flaws. But for the most part, it’s up to two seniors lacking in actual game experience to lead the unit.
Gingell and Lopata say they learned enough from their mentor, Rivas, to carry the place kickers smoothly through the transition.
During practice, Rivas would meticulously work on his technique and watch film the day after the games to process his form. Gingell said Rivas always kept an even keel after he missed a kick and just focused on the next try.
“(Garrett), in my opinion, has set the measuring stick of excellence for a Michigan kicker,” Lopata said. “(He’s) a guy who has always come through in the clutch and has been extremely dependable. He’s a guy we’re all going to try to live up to and fill his shoes.”
Gingell didn’t quite realize how quickly Carr could call his name during a game.
The Northville native’s lone extra-point attempt last season came after backup linebacker Max Pollack returned an interception for a touchdown against Central Michigan. Gingell didn’t have a chance to warm up his leg when Carr shouted for him to enter the game.
“I think it’s harder to stay warm the whole game,” Gingell said. “Mentally, it’s hard, but physically, it’s hard because you have to be warmed up and ready to go at all times.”
The three-year starter at Northville Catholic Central spent the last three years watching Rivas, who hit around 80 percent of his kicks, prepare before and during the game.
Gingell admired Rivas’s approach. Last season’s starter would ride the bike and maintain a calm demeanor regardless of what happened during a game.
“He would just come back to the sideline if he missed it and ask, ‘How did it look? Was it my fault? Was the snap all right? Was it the height on the ball?’ ” Gingell said. “Usually you can tell by the path of the ball what you did wrong, and he would always just come back and make the next one.”
Wright likes to keep his thoughts from harping on the magnitude of the attempt.
“I’m thinking make the kick,” Wright said. “Keep it simple. Don’t worry about it; don’t think about it. Just make the kick.”
Unfortunately, some of the elements are out of his control.
The ‘double-edged sword’
It’s known for holding more than 110,000 fans, but a forgotten Michigan Stadium trademark is the swirling wind.
“You just got to aim straight unless there’s some serious wind,” Gingell said. “It’s not the easiest place to kick because you can never really tell. It always switches on you really quick.”
And when the ball misses the uprights, the man responsible can expect to hear it from Wolverine nation.
In the last four years of Michigan football, Rivas cemented his legacy. He became the Wolverines’ all-time scoring leader with 354 points and ranks second in career field-goal percentage (78 percent).
But many of the Michigan faithful won’t remember that consistent Rivas. Those fans held their arms extended above their heads with fingers crossed every time he stepped onto the field and taunted him after each missed attempt.
That’s the price Rivas paid when he walked into the spotlight forever focused on Michigan kickers.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” walk-on kicker Jason Olesnavage said. “Garrett had a great year last year. He did have some critics when he was younger. I think it kind of comes with the territory. People will support you if you’re doing well or get on you when you’re not doing so well.”
Gingell just found out what the ultimate low feels like after two of his boots were blocked, even though Carr cited missed assignments as the reason for both miscues.
Now, the quiet kid from Northville will have to regain the trust of a Wolverine nation that is ready to jump to Wright or Lopata before they give Gingell another chance.
But at the position where perfection is demanded, criticism is expected.
“You can’t really let stuff like that bother you,” Olesnavage said. “It’s other peoples’ opinions. You want to do your best as long as you’re working as hard as you can. You’re not going to be perfect. Nobody’s perfect.”
Gingell had to find that out the hard way.