EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – As his Connecticut teammates came dashing from the sideline and onto the field in celebration of a 13-10 victory over Virginia, placekicker Bobby Puyol was on a mission to find his counterpart from the other side.
Virginia kicker Alex Furbank, playing the first football game of his life, had just missed a 20-yard field goal attempt as the clock expired. If Furbank had split the uprights instead of pulling the ball wide left, he would have tied the game and sent it to overtime.
Luck can be cruel to a beginner. Skill and confidence come with time.
Placekickers have a fraternity that is unique in the game of football. Puyol, UConn’s fifth-year senior, wasn’t acting on sympathy. He simply understood the emotions.
“I’ve been in that same boat,” Puyol said after Saturday’s game before a crowd of 31,036 at Rentschler Field. “To see that guy . . . I told him, ‘You’re going to have plenty more kicks.’ I’ve had plenty more that I’ve missed that I can make again.”
Puyol, who is 23 and has been around UConn since 2012, had kicked a 43-yard field goal with 1:33 remaining Saturday to give the Huskies (2-1) their 13-10 lead. After Virginia (0-3) put together a 73-yard drive in nine plays, Furbank had his chance to be the hero.
Furbank had opened the scoring with a 23-yard field goal, giving Virginia its first lead of the 2016 season. He also kicked a point after to give the Cavaliers a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.
But then he sat until the final play of the game
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall had turned the kicking responsibilities over to Furbank for the first time this past week.
“It’s a big learning experience,” Puyol said. “You learn from your failures. That’s what makes people great. It proves what you can do when you get back up. There’s a verse in the Bible that says the righteous fall seven times, but get up eight times. If you get up, that’s the thing that makes you great.”
Puyol, who kicked a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in the season opener to lift the Huskies to a 24-21 win over Maine, had no idea this was Furbank’s first football game – until reporters told him Saturday. Furbank, a sophomore, transferred to Virginia after spending his freshman season at Division III Randolph-Macon on the soccer team.
“That’s awesome,” Puyol said. “That’s pretty cool being in that situation and to have such inexperience to be in that situation. He’s going to do a great job as the season goes on.”
Puyol appreciates the power of encouragement and confidence. He gets a heavy dose of both from his coaches and teammates, who basically consider him “automatic” when he lines up for a kick. Despite a rough start last season, he ended up a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award and was named to the preseason “watch list” for this year’s Groza Award.
“Having a kicker like Bobby is incredible because we have confidence that you can get points,” UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. “Within a certain range, it’s like go-to points. I have a lot of faith in him, as does the whole team. He’s proven what a good kicker he is and he’s an elite kicker in the country. It’s an honor to have him on the team.”
When does Shirreffs know the Huskies have entered Puyol’s range?
“Who knows what his real range is? He hasn’t under-kicked anything,” Shirreffs said. “If we’re calling a field goal, I feel confident in that.”
Puyol said he feels confident from 55 yards and in. Saturday he was actually up to 57 yards of trust because of the wind. In warm-ups before the game, he did hit a 57-yarder.
“He trains that way,” UConn coach Bob Diaco said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes his craft. Not long ago, he had to really work at it. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and trained and re-trained his fundamentals and mastery to the point that he’s at right now.”
As a freshman in 2012, Puyol was forced into duty in the season finale against Cincinnati. He kicked a 42-yard field goal and had two PATs but it wiped out what would have been a redshirt season for him. He did redshirt in 2013.
Last season began in bizarre fashion. His first PAT attempt was blocked against Villanova. Another was blocked the next week against Army. In Week 3, at Missouri, he had another blocked. Trailing the Tigers 9-6, it was clear that Diaco didn’t have confidence in any of his kickers, deciding to fake a field goal formation on fourth down with 45 seconds left. The Huskies had a pass intercepted and lost.
“Coach Diaco came in and I did all right but I really shouldered a lot,” Puyol said. “I had a lot of ups and downs. Last year I was competing with Mike [Tarbutt]. I was very up and down. I had those three games where I had the three blocked PAT’s.
“The Missouri game kind of changed my life – how I do things, how I go about football and how I go about life. I’m here now. I think I’ve come through it. I started focusing on every single thing in practice, making it feel like I’m in a game. If you have success in practice, going from practice to the game feels like nothing. I put it to another level.”
Through three games, Puyol has been UConn’s most valuable player. It doesn’t come better than two winning kicks in three games – especially at a time when UConn needs victories for so many reasons.
He was asked if it has changed his status on campus.
Puyol just laughed.
“I guess,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know if people know what I look like without the helmet on.”