'Berto late than never: Aguayo hits game-winner
Robert Aguayo looked up and saw the kick tumbling end over end, perfectly splitting the uprights as it traveled 38 yards through the cool air at Bank of America Stadium.
The crowd of 73,425 grew silent as church prayer when they realized the field goal meant the Bucs (2-3) had beaten the Carolina Panthers 17-14 on Monday Night Football.
"I looked up and it was going down the middle and everybody was coming at me," Aguayo said. "For some reason, I was telling everyone, “We are going to get a penalty.’ But the game was over."
Aguayo, the rookie from Florida State, had missed two of his four previous field goal attempts Monday, hitting the right upright from 33 yards and pushing a 46-yarder to the left that would’ve given the Bucs the lead with 3:33 left in the game.
"I wasn’t comfortable," confessed Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. "We couldn’t have gotten close enough."
That’s because while Aguayo had the golden toe for the Seminoles, it turned to brass when he was selected in the second round of the NFL draft.
The most accurate kicker in NCAA history inside of 40 yards had actually missed more field goals (four) than he had made (three) this season when he eye-balled a chance at another game-winner Monday. In fact, Aguayo missed more kicks Monday than he did as a freshman at FSU when he made 21-of-22 field goal attempts and all 94 extra points.
In fact, he had admittedly been sort of a basket case since preseason when he started spraying kicks all over the place in games and in practice.
"I guess you could say that," Aguayo said. "Definitely in the NFL, you get a lot of criticism, which I found out early. But I learned to let that go in one ear and out the other. You’ve got to just laugh at it. I know what to do. I’ve done it at Florida State so it is a rough start coming in but I know what I’m capable of."
So did quarterback Jameis Winston, his former teammate, who took the goat horns off Aquayo’s helmet when he rescued the Bucs with a clutch 66-yard drive in 11 play after taking over with 1:49 to play.
Winston completed four passes to help move the Bucs to the Carolina 32-yard line with the game still tied 14-14.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who set career highs in rushing attempts (30) and yards (101) Monday, was stopped for no gain but pulled down by his facemask by Panthers defensive linemen Kony Ealy, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.
Enter Aguayo, who had sucked the confidence out of Koetter and perhaps most of his teammates except for Winston, who vowed to give him another chance.
"I told him big-time players make big-time plays in big-time moments," Winston said he told Aguayo after his final miss. "I said, ‘I’m going to get you that ball down there, if I don’t do it myself, I said, so be ready. And he was ready. I knew he was ready. I got the ultimate trust in him."
Aguayo went over to the kicking net and practiced by himself, trying to stay smooth in his approach ripping one after another into the mesh.
"I was just hitting the ball in the net and just working on staying smooth and staying comfortable and when I got there, I was just like having another rep in the net, being comfortable and attacking the ball," Aguayo said. "It’s just another kick."
Except it wasn’t. Had Aguayo missed another potential game-winner, it would’ve gone to overtime and the Panthers’ seven-game winning streak may have gone to eight.
Despite all his success, Aguayo said he had only made one game-winner during his career at Florida State, a 23-yarder in a 20-17 win at Boston College two years ago.
But this was a little different. Had Aguayo missed again Monday, the Bucs may have gone into the bye week seriously considering hiring another place-kicker, second-round pick be damned. And general manger Jason Licht would’ve spent next 13 days wiping the omelette off his face for the unconventional and risky decision to take a place-kicker in the second round.
"I remember I had that 46-yarder and missed it and the defense came up to me and said, 'We’re going to give you another shot,'" Aguayo said.
"There’s nothing you can do about it. I thought I hit (the ball) well. It went off to the left. You want those back. But as much as you want them back, you’ve got to concentrate on the next one."
Koetter walked up to Aguayo as the Bucs prepared to run their last play and use their last time out.
"Coach came up to me and said, ‘Right (hashmark)?’" Aguayo said. "And I was like, 'Yeah.'"
On the final play from scrimmage, Winston took the snap and ran to the right hashmark, cradling the ball and falling to the ground in the fetal position.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera called time out in an effort to play with Aguayo’s nerves.
"Yeah, they iced me. But I’ve been iced before," Aguayo said. "It doesn’t affect me."
Winston was talking to a teammate and actually missed watching the kick.
After the game, Koetter was asked if Monday’s a game-winner gave him more confidence in Aguayo.
"Yeah. I don’t know about that," Koetter said. "I’m happy that he made it and it’s awesome that he made it. We can’t miss those field goals. Shoot, what do you want me to say? We can’t miss those. We could’ve lost this game. I’m happy he made the last one."