When LSU beat Alabama by a score of 9-6 without a single touchdown, the world of special teams took center stage as people realized that even national championship-caliber games can be won - or lost - by those who are often ignored.
"I think it shows that special teams in every game is really important. It came down to that Alabama missed four field goals. That's just not good," said USC punter Kris Albarado.
The true freshman scholarship punter decided to redshirt his freshman year to help USC weather the scholarship reductions for the long run. In the meantime, walk-on and redshirt junior transfer Kyle Negrete handles punting duties with his remaining eligibility.
Albarado and fellow freshman place kicker Andre Heidari were the first two kickers USC recruited since Troy Van Blarcom in 2005, who left after becoming academically ineligible after only a year with the Trojans. Many colleges don't give their scholarships - especially when they are facing three-years-worth of reductions - to specialists. But the Trojans still did.
Just look at their past two years playing the Washington Huskies, this week's opponent. They lost by three points in 2009 and just one in 2010. Both were a result of missed field goals, last year's by Joe Houston, who was just 10-of-16 last year and missed a 40-yard field goal vs. Washington with just over three minutes left in the game that would have extended the USC lead to 34-29. Instead, Erik Folk hit a 32-yarder at the buzzer as Washington prevailed, 32-31.
"I came here every home game last year and just seeing that Washington game, and going into the locker room after the game, I saw Joe Houston and he was devastated, but it happens," said Heidari.
Neither player got into kicking to be the hero or the scapegoat. It's far from a glamorous job and it comes with a stigma that even their own teammates sometimes believe.
"A lot of guys on the team think we don't do a lot at practice," said Heidari, with Albarado nodding in agreement.
They said some days players won't even call them by their name, but by their position.
Heidari eventually cut his teammates a little slack.
"They'll love you after the game if you make it, they are still going to love you if you miss it," he admitted. "But miss doesn't come into the vocabulary."
The "M" word is a forbidden one most of the time. According to Heidari and Albarado, kicking is 95 mental.
"You can't look at going into a game as pressure," said Heidari. "You just have to go out there on the field and do your thing...You can't have a negative mindset."
So that means icing a kicker really can work?
"Not on me," said Heidari.
The other five percent still requires a specific skill set. This is what they are actually working on during practice. On Wednesday, Heidari was standing on the sideline hooking the ball around a down marker aiming for the uprights. He was doing what was called an angle drill. There are also pole drills (the name is fairly self-explanatory) to work on accuracy, line drills and bench drills. The latter is all to improve on muscle memory. They stand on a bench with one leg and simply go through the motion of kicking the ball repetitively.
For punters, they spend hours catching balls to practice their drops.
"If the drop is bad, the punt is bad," said Albarado.
But the most crucial body part that these two must train isn't on their lower body.
"The most important thing about kicking is your eyes," explained Heidari.
To the untrained eye, hitting one square between the uprights looks as easy as hitting an elephant. It seems too hard to miss. But special teams coach John Baxter has told them to aim and focus on a specific target like a flag on top of the jumbotron or a fan in the stands.
"Spill somebody's nachos," they are reminded before every game.
Heidari made 13 of 15 field goals this season and has 3,535 yards and seven touchbacks on kickoff returns. The longest field goal he has he has hit in a game is 50 yards (against Stanford). In practice, he has a 65-yarder.
Albarado's longest punt in practice has been 70 yards. In high school, his longest punt was 65 yards.
Each specialist found their way into this strange world by different means. Albarado was just experimenting with a football one day and found out he wasn't too bad at it. He later started training with coaches and, after learning the right technique, his kicking career took off.
Heidari on the other hand was a soccer player who was trying out for the local football team. He specifically tried out for the position of kicker and on his first shot, kicked it 60 yards.
By the time they were seniors, both were All-Americans and few of the fortunate specialists to be recruited. Albarado averaged 43.5 yards on 24 punts with eight of those falling inside the 20-yard-line his senior year at St. Louis High School (Lake Charles, LA). Heidari made eight field goals and 17 PATs his last year at Stockdale High (Bakersfield, CA).
Yes, the world of special teams is what the name implies it to be. Heidari though, who seems different by many standards, seems to takes some of the joking and chiding in stride because he remembers one very simple fact.
"When it comes down to you, that team is going to be praying for you to make that game winning field goal. They aren't making fun of you then."