My neighbor with season tickets to UCLA football games at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena couldn’t go, so we went, which is always fun. You park on the Brookside golf course in the Arroyo Seco, which is lit up like the golf course in Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic sci-fi movie Melancholia.
The Rose Bowl isn’t a modern luxury stadium, but, hey, it’s the Rose Bowl. Baseball stadiums are often renown for their city skyline settings, but football stadiums less often, perhaps because they are more enclosing. But the Rose Bowl, at the foot of mile-high Mt. Wilson where Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way is just one of countless galaxies, is an exception.
UCLA came into game against Utah ranked in the Top Ten. A victory over Utah, which was unranked (but pretty good: they beat Michigan in Ann Arbor), would have propelled the Bruins into the Top Five with all the other upsets this week. But UCLA will always break your heart in football.
It’s not the kind of place where everybody involved will do whatever it takes to be #1. In late 1981, I was talking to a coworker who had been an All-American football player at UCLA in 1970s. We were lamenting UCLA’s 1981 loss to USC in which the last five yards of Marcus Allen’s NCAA record-setting 2,342 yards rushing season were USC’s game-winning touchdown. He explained to me why USC was better than UCLA at football: “Because USC’s players know that if they beat UCLA they will be rewarded.” At that point I responded with something obtuse, so he repeated for my benefit, “USC’s players know they will be rewarded.”
UCLA lost to Utah tonight 30-28 despite the refs giving them a second chance after time expired to kick a long game-winning field goal. Utah had fewer total yards but deserved to win, in sizable part because Utah punter Tom Hackett put on a showcase of 21st Century trans-Pacific punting techniques, average over 49 yards per punt despite pinning UCLA inside their 20 four times. Hackett’s techniques were so varied and superior to the American standard that I suspected he was an Australian Rules football player.
Here’s video of Hackett punting against Fresno St. earlier this season:
The announcer in the video calls him an Australian rugby player, but he’s really a player of Australian Rules football, which is a different game.
Australian Rules football, a cousin to soccer, rugby, American (gridiron) football, and Gaelic football, is particularly punting-intensive. Because Aussie Rules football is a huge sport in one of the world’s great sporting countries, the outstanding athletes of Australia are better at punting than American punters. In recent years, the NFL has started to import older Aussie Rules players who are getting up into their 30s (too old for the athletic demands of Aussie Rules, but plenty spry for NFL punting duties).
Sure enough, Utah’s punter is from Melbourne. From the Salt Lake City Tribune:
The son of an Australian rules footballer who briefly played professionally, Hackett kicked from the time he could walk.
He led his prep team in goals — which are essentially punted through uprights — at Melbourne’s Scotch College, but while he was a better “kick” than his old man, he was small (5-foot-11) for an Australian rules forward, and not particularly fond of running.
In the preseason, as more determined players prepared to run up to 15 miles per game, Hackett would head to the beach, “maybe have one too many beers, and just have fun with my friends.”
When he saw on the 6 p.m. news one night that an Australian Football League luminary might train for the American game with an outfit called ProKick Australia, he thought that looked like a good deal. Kick the ball, do nothing else, and be compensated.
American football is notoriously not very foot-oriented. In the 1960s, foreign-born kickers from the Gogolak brothers onward introduced the superior soccer-style placekicking to American football. These days, virtually every NFL placekicker is an American born white guy who kicks soccer style.
The other use of the foot is punting, in which the player catches the ball with two hands, then drops it and kicks it out of the air with the top of his foot. The punt is used in American football to give the ball back to the other team far down the field. In the U.S., punters are typically football players who aren’t quite good enough to make it at other positions. American punters tend to be competent but not innovative, using the same rigid technique on every punt. This is particularly frustrating when American football teams punt within the other team’s 50 yard line. That seems to energize American punters to blast the ball over the goal line, from which it is brought out to the 20.
In contrast, watching Utah’s Hackett punt was like watching golfer Phil Mickelson play around the green. For example, on one punt from inside the 50, the kind of situation where an American punter normally blasts it into the end zone for a touchback, Hackett took the snap, sprinted to his right like it was a fake punt, then blasted a diagonal punt across the field to his left, knocking it out of bounds around UCLA’s 10 yard line.
Hackett normally ran for one to two seconds with the ball before punting, which looked bizarre to this American football fan, but offered several advantages.
– Running to his right could give him a better angle at kicking the ball over the left sideline within the 20.
– It made it harder for the defense to plan to block the punt since he could pick a lane without defensive penetration.
– He punted while running forward, while typical American punters punt while walking forward. This increased forward momentum translates into longer punts.
– By not punting immediately, he gained the equivalent amount of “hang-time” for his teammates to get downfield and cover the punt. Hackett tended to kick the ball with a different trajectory from American punters who aim for height — his punts were like a 1970s Jack Nicklaus tee-shot, starting out low, then rising in arc. Some of his punts were designed to roll forward like a modern teeshot, while ones in danger of going over the goalline were crafted to roll backwards.
A half century ago, punting used to be a bigger part of teams’ strategies because they weren’t as adept at moving the ball on offense. For example, in an old UCLA v. USC game of my childhood, a key play was Bruins halfback Greg Jones “quick-kicking” on third down instead of waiting for fourth down. With no punt returner back, Jones’ end over end punt rolled a terrific distance, pinning USC deep in their own territory. In 8th grade football games at recess, I’d imitate that strategy on the grounds that we were too disorganized to move the ball forward offensively in a sustained manner, so better to drive the other team back toward their goal line and then hope for a turnover.
Of course, modern football teams tends to be superbly organized on offense, so quick-kicks are rare these days: Tom Brady quick-kicked on 3rd and ten in a 2012 playoff game to keep from running up the score. But otherwise, teams are so good at passing that, outside of a snow game, it doesn’t make sense to pass up a down.
Nonetheless, the intense competitive balance in American football (as demonstrated by all the upsets in college football today) implies that a next phase will be the spread of superior Australian punting techniques nationally.
High level football in the United States is quite black dominated among stars, with the exception of the quarterback position. The media has long campaigned for more black quarterbacks in the name of diversity, but little interest has been devoted to a less divisive, more constructive possibility: Since American blacks never train to become placekickers and seldom punters, virtually all 64 placekickers and punters in the NFL are white. But almost none are stars because the game has evolved to the point where they are so competent they only get noticed when they foul up. But the 64 guys who touch the ball with their feet are treated like robots who occasionally go awry, not as athletes.
The NFL has started to think about making placekicking harder to make it more exciting when the kicker makes it. But the importation of advanced Aussie Rules techniques into the punting game won’t even require any rule changes, it just makes the punter a more interesting and exciting athlete.
So, the coming Aussie Rules era will increase racial diversity and equality in the NFL, which everybody is in favor of, right? Right?