For whatever reason, Jack Mitchell can’t. Northwestern’s senior kicker has made just one of his four attempted field goals this season, while converting eight of nine extra points. Granted, Mitchell has never been the most reliable kicker, but he’s had his share of moments for NU, and always seemed to redeem himself with a big performance when it mattered most.
Over the first four games of 2016, Mitchell has gone from inconsistent to downright ineffective. A missed 33-yard field goal against Illinois State could have turned a tight game and a 27-yard miss (as well as an extra point miss) against Nebraska shifted momentum, proving disastrous for an already limited offense.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald could no longer ignore Mitchell’s struggles, and said after the Nebraska game that the kicking job was “wide open.” He elaborated Monday on a depth chart that listed Jack Mitchell “or” redshirt senior Matt Micucci at starting kicker for Saturday’s game at Iowa.
“The plan on Saturday is that whoever has the most consistent week will go out there,” Fitzgerald said. “Then, the plan is to make field goals and extra points.”
It’s unclear exactly how Fitzgerald will evaluate which kicker has a more consistent week in practice, and he shot down ideas of a potential kicking contest. But honestly, what better way is there to determine a starter than by pitting two kickers against each other in a high stakes situation? With ramped up pressure and kicks from different distances, that sounds like a fantastic way to decide a starting kicker.
Especially because Mitchell’s inconsistency doesn’t even show in practice, according to Fitzgerald.
“There’s some inconsistencies there fundamentally” Fitzgerald said. “He hasn’t been doing that a whole lot in practice, it’s really just in the game.”
Fitzgerald even tried a fake field goal on Saturday, which was quickly thwarted by Nebraska. Micucci, who was the holder, flipped the ball to Mitchell, and then Mitchell threw it back to him for a two-yard gain. Despite the failure, it was an encouraging sign to see a creative Fitzgerald try options other than his unreliable kicking game.
But on Monday, Fitzgerald claimed that the fake had nothing to do with Mitchell’s struggles, and that he just wanted to score a touchdown. That’s hard to believe. Fitzgerald is losing confidence in Mitchell, but he’s not ready to give the job to someone else.
That might be because the ‘Cats don’t have a better option. Micucci has attempted 32 total kickoffs, but has never attempted a field goal. Mitchell has been serviceable on kickoffs and will continue to handle that job, so Micucci won’t be needed there. The best thing Fitzgerald said about Micucci was that “he’s been really consistent in practice” and “he stepped up kicking off” when Mitchell was out. Micucci is definitely worth a shot, but he’s still extremely untested.
If Micucci gets his turn and doesn’t perform, could NU turn to redshirt freshman Mason Weissenhofer, who Fitzgerald hasn’t mentioned at all? Fitzgerald’s reluctance to try other options at kicker probably says more about Mitchell’s backups than Mitchell himself.
Why is there a shortage of kicking talent at NU? Mitchell’s predecessor was Jeff Budzien, one of the best kickers in the Big Ten during his time and arguably NU’s best kicker ever. It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald is also the special teams coordinator, and if he was in charge of recruiting a kicker after Budzien, he didn’t do a great job - Mitchell, a former walk-on, has been ineffective and is somehow still the best option.
Fortunately, Charlie Kuhbander, the third-best kicker in the 2017 class, is committed to NU and will try to turn around the ‘Cats kicking woes next year.
But for now, I think the Wildcats will continue to ride the Jack Mitchell rollercoaster, praying that their most experienced kicker finds consistency soon. If he doesn’t, NU has no choice but to make a change - either that, or find a way to play at Notre Dame every single game.