By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Sometimes dreams do come true.
Ask Michael Molinari.
His came true on a dreamy sunlit afternoon in Milan Puskar Stadium, somewhat overshadowed by a rock-ribbed defense that for the third time this year failed to yield an offensive touchdown and that turned the fortunes of the game around with an 83-yard rumble with a fumble by Jewone Snow.
It was overshadowed, too, by an offense that produced 541 yards, 469 of them through the air, with receivers Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney each surpassing 100 yards, Bailey putting the cherry on top with an 84-yard touchdown reception.
As spectacular as all that was, though, the most important contribution may well have been the job Molinari turned in with his first punting assignment.
Let me clarify that, for you surely are thinking that it was his first punting assignment at West Virginia University, after coming out of Parkersburg South High. Most did think that way, for the WVU media guide clearly states that he averaged 40 yards a punt for the Patriots.
“I read where it said I punted in high school but I didn’t ever punt in high school,” he revealed after the game. “We had a big fullback who punted.”
He was a placekicker and, here at WVU, he had been groomed as a holder, but when Corey Smith proved himself to be consistently inconsistent as a punter, launching the ball 50-plus yards on one kick and 14 the next, Coach Dana Holgorsen held tryouts.
It was that or pull out what hair he has remaining by the end of the season.
Molinari won the tryouts, went out onto the field and under as much pressure, really, as anyone could be, punted the ball five times for an average of 43.0 yards and a net of 41.4. Three times he punted inside the 20 and once pinned Maryland back so far that when the center lined up over the football his rear end was in the end zone.
Asked if he could describe the experience, Molinari thought for a moment, then said, “A dream.”
“I’ve dreamed about this day,” he said.
He came to WVU, in part, because he knew he could compete for the holding job when Jeremy Cash graduated last season, certainly not to punt.
But, as he said, “You always have to stay the course.”
Named the punter in mid-week by Holgorsen, he didn’t get a chance to punt until early in the second quarter when UConn stopped the Mountaineers. Punting from his own 26, he boomed the first punt 46 yards, which was nice, but a 12-yard return by Nick Williams eliminated some of the effectiveness of it.
A series later a WVU drive stalled out at the UConn 38 when Molinari was again asked to come on to punt.
The Mountaineers took their time, wanting a delay of game penalty that would give Molinari and little more room to drop the
ball dead, and snap came almost at the same time the flag was thrown … Molinari fielding it and going through was a punt, the ball slipping off the side of his foot and going out of bounds maybe 10 or 15 yards downfield.
“I heard the crowd moan,” Molinari admitted, “but I knew there was a penalty and I would have another chance. It was kind of half-hearted effort, not really looking.”
When he punted again from five yards further back it was a beauty, a ball that floated out of bounds right at the pylon on the goal line, the ball marked at the one and a half yard line.
The crowd went bonkers, as did his teammates on the sideline, mobbing the young West Virginian when the ball missed going into the end zone.
“That took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” he admitted.
All of a sudden, he could relax, confident he could get the job done. More important, Holgorsen could relax also.
“Sometimes you gotta put guys in a game situation and give guys chances to see if they can do it,” Holgorsen said of putting Molinari in. “UConn didn’t come after him as much and that changes guys as well, but he had time to kick it and the conditions were good and he took advantage of his opportunity.”
As for Molinari, how did he see the entire experience?
“You hope your dreams become a reality some day and it did today,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel