To say that field goals will likely play a significant role in Pitt's game against West Virginia this Friday is probably something of an understatement. If history has any precedent, this year's Backyard Brawl will probably be decided on the foot of a kicker.
"The kicking game will be a major factor; it has been in the last three games," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday.
In the last three Pitt-West Virginia games, the two teams have combined for 12 made field goals on 18 attempts. The 2007 game saw Pitt kicker Conor Lee connect on two of his three attempts, while West Virginia's Pat McAfee whiffed on both of his tries.
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Two years ago, nine of the Mountaineers' 15 points came from field goals. And last year, Pitt and West Virginia combined to make seven field goals, including the first 12 points scored in the game. That contest, which went to the Mountaineers 19-16 in Morgantown, saw WVU kicker Tyler Bitancurt hit all four of his field goal attempts - including 43-yarder as time expired - while Pitt's Dan Hutchins missed two of his five.
Hutchins hit from 30, 36, and 37 yards last season against West Virginia, but missed from 46 and 53. Now Hutchins, who has made 76% of his field goal attempts in his two years as Pitt's primary kicker, is facing another game that could come down to field goals. If those placements are inside 40 yards, Pitt should be in good shape, as Hutchins has made 33 of his 36 attempts (91.7%) in that range.
But if the kicks are lined up outside of 40 yards - as was the case on both of his misses against West Virginia last season - then things might get hairy. In his career, Hutchins has hit five-of-13 (38.5%) from 40 yards or longer. He made four of those five long field goals last season; in 2010, Hutchins is 1-of-5 from beyond 40.
Hutchins' most recent long miss came on Saturday at South Florida. He connected on a 36-yard attempt in the first quarter, but missed wide left on a 43-yard attempt in the fourth quarter with Pitt leading 17-10 and less than two minutes remaining in the game.
"I've hit from 60 before; it's not like I hit that field goal (at South Florida) and came up short. I killed it," Hutchins said this week. "It's just unfortunate. I missed by about a foot or so. I need to aim better and I need to account for the wind. We were in Florida with the cross-wind, and that's on me. I've been working on that, but it's unfortunate that I had that miss. It would have sealed the game up a little better.
"I believe that I'm able to make those kicks, it's just unfortunate that I have missed multiple kicks like that. It would have been nice to get that kick."
Hutchins' long misses this season have come from 42, 43, 44, and 52 (he has also missed from 27 and 28. With West Virginia's defense ranked among the top ten in almost every category - most importantly, scoring - Pitt will have to maximize every opportunity for points. That could mean a long field goal attempt, and while Hutchins maintains that he is confident he can hit the longer kicks, the statistics are what they are.
Pitt does have another option in redshirt sophomore Kevin Harper. Harper, who serves as kickoff specialist for the Panthers, has the strongest leg of any Pitt kicker, but he has attempted just one field goal in his career (a miss from 51 yards last season) and has struggled with accuracy in his three years of college ball.
"I'm always mentally ready for anything," Harper said after Saturday's game. "Coach makes a decision on whether it's Hutch or me. Both of us are good kickers and he's confident in both of us, so I'm just always ready."
"[Hutchins is] capable of kicking 50-yard field goals," Wannstedt said. "Kevin does have a stronger leg, and he's always available. If we got into a situation where it was a long field goal and we didn't like the conditions and the situation, that would always be a possibility. But I have all the confidence in the world in Hutch."
This week's game will have the added element of Heinz Field, where the strain of both Pitt and the Pittsburgh Steelers has taken its toll on the surface. Several NFL players have complained about the surface in recent weeks - including former Steelers' kicker Jeff Reed - and now the Panthers are headed for a game that could rely on the kicking game quite a bit.
"The field's been like that for ages," Hutchins said. "Sometimes it does affect the kicking, but for the past five years I've put it on myself to overcome that.
"We're going to go out there and attack it. The field should be fine and hopefully it will be fine, but we've been in that situation where the field was not as great and we've been able to overcome it. I wouldn't say it will have that much of an effect. It may have an effect on [West Virginia] because they're not used to it."