Running out of time and chances, it wasn’t a gamble for Georgia Southern University football coach Chris Hatcher. So he called for the onside kick.
That left it to senior kicker Patrick Bolen to hit the ball just right and hope he or a teammate could get on top of it, after it traveled 10 yards and before the Western Carolina Catamounts could beat them to the punch.
“We didn’t have much time,” Hatcher said, as the Eagles trailed by 14 points with 6:39 to go in the fourth quarter.
“And we needed the ball back. It was not high-risk at that time — you had to do it. It was not a hard call to make.”
So Bolen tapped the football and it bounded toward Georgia Southern’s 40-yard line, and into the senior kicker’s hands as Catamounts and Eagles swarmed on top of him.
“I was just hoping that it went 10 yards,” said Bolen, a South Effingham High School graduate. “If it doesn’t, you know you’ll put the defense in a bind. When I first hit the ball, I thought it wasn’t going to go 10 yards.
“I had to have confidence in my teammates blocking for me and that it was going to go 10 yards.”
Not going the full 10 yards would have given the Catamounts the ball inside the Eagles 40 with only two timeouts remaining. Instead, Bolen — with his fellow Eagles clearing a path through the Western Carolina return team — wound up with the ball and the Eagles wound up scoring six plays later to cut Western Carolina’s lead to 31-24 with 4:39 to go.
The Eagles won 38-31 in overtime, capping a 28-point rally in the final 10 minutes of regulation, and Bolen was named the Southern Conference special teams player of the week. That’s an honor usually reserved for someone having a big day returning kicks and punts, blocking kicks or hitting a bunch of field goals — not someone whose main duty is kicking off.
Since Sept. 1, the special teams player of the week has gone to a return specialist five times, to a placekicker three times and once to a punter.
“It’s definitely an honor I’ll cherish for a while,” Bolen said. “You usually don’t look at a one-dimensional guy. They had to have an excellent game.”
And it wasn’t just Bolen’s game-changing play that earned him his first SoCon weekly honor. He also delivered touchbacks on three of his other five kickoffs. Starting from their own 20 from the three touchbacks, the Catamounts did not score on any of those ensuing possessions.
This year, getting a touchback is more difficult, since college kickoffs now mirror the NFL’s starting point of the 30-yard line. But that hasn’t deterred Bolen, who still eyes drilling the football into and out of the end zone.
So far this year, he leads the SoCon with 10 touchbacks in 47 kickoffs, and the Eagles lead the conference in kickoff coverage. Bolen kicked off 11 times last year and got two touchbacks.
“My goal is to try to put it in the end zone and get touchbacks,” Bolen said. “I feel like I should be getting the majority of them in the end zone.”
“The one problem he’s had is being consistent,” Hatcher said of Bolen. “Kicking off from the 30 now makes it that much more important. I was real pleased with the way he kicked off (against Western Carolina).”
Bolen had two tackles, but the pileup on top of him Saturday was the first one he’s been under as an Eagle. What happens at the bottom of the pile stays at the bottom of the pile because it’s usually unpleasant.
“Some guys were pulling at my leg,” he said. “Some were trying to rip my arms from the ball so they could recover it.”
The job on kickoffs is now his as freshman Adrian Mora has established himself as the Eagles’ placekicker. Along with punter Charlie Edwards, who leads the SoCon in punting, what had been a concern at the beginning of the season is now a strength.
“When you’ve got good confidence in your kicking game, that bodes well for your team,” Hatcher said.
Since stepping in for Jesse Hartley, Mora is 7-of-9 on field goal tries and 22-of-22 on extra point attempts. Bolen, who had two 50-yard field goals in high school, was 11-of-12 on PATs in 2006 and 6-of-11 on field goals.
With three regular-season games left in his senior season — Bolen graduates Dec. 12 at 9 a.m. and is student teaching at Mill Creek Elementary School in Statesboro — he’s not lobbying Hatcher to let him try to put one more through the uprights for points.
But as the elder statesmen of the kickers, he imparts wisdom to Edwards, Mora and a group that, like the rest of the team, is laden with freshmen.
“They’ll rag on me a little bit,” he said. “But I tell them time goes by pretty fast here, so you better enjoy it while you can.”