Montana State kicker Rory Perez might have been the happiest player on the field Saturday during the Bobcats’ 36-7 win over Northern Arizona.
Coming into the game, Perez’s season hadn’t unfolded the way he expected. The senior said during fall camp that his goal was a perfect season — no missed field goals and no missed extra points. But five weeks into his last season in Bozeman, Perez had already missed 5 of 9 field-goal attempts and was wide on an extra point try against Stephen F. Austin.
On Saturday, when the Bobcats’ third drive stalled at NAU’s 23-yard line, there was some consternation about how the ’Cats would approach the fourth-and-3 play. At the time, Montana State was averaging 8 yards per rush and was in an area of the field conducive to fourth-down attempts.
But out trotted the senior kicker for a 40-yard attempt that split the uprights and bolstered MSU’s lead to 10-0. Before the second quarter ended, Perez connected on a 28-yard attempt, then again from 45 out just before the first half came to a close.
Of the 16 points Montana State scored in Saturday’s opening half, 10 came from the left foot of Perez.
“That was great for me,” Perez said at Tuesday’s news conference. “I just feel like I was more focused this game; I just put everything aside. I was focused from Thursday on and dedicated that I needed a good game and went out there and performed.”
Perez’s early struggles were a surprise considering how he finished his junior year. The Moreno Valley, Calif., native, who also shares in Montana State’s punting duties, made 10 of his last 12 attempts in 2012, including three field goals in the ’Cats’ 16-7 win over Montana and three more in their 16-10 second-round playoff win over Stony Brook.
A possible explanation for the difference in Perez’s performance, according to both head coach Rob Ash and special teams coach Daniel DePrato, are the situations in which the kicker has been put.
A shoulder injury to Rocky Hogue, who transferred to MSU one week before fall camp opened, has forced Montana State to rotate through three long snappers — including 5-foot-9, 195-pound Tyler Nesbitt — in addition to two different holders. Last season, Perez never experienced a change in either position.
On Saturday, Nate Bignell, a defensive end who usually wears No. 93, threw on the No. 66 jersey and took Nesbitt’s place.
Ash also pointed out that the ’Cats’ efforts to institute a swinging-gate formation on point-after attempts may have hampered Perez’s ability to find a rhythm.
Montana State has already attempted eight two-point conversions by way of the swinging gate. Against SFA — a game Perez was successful on 1 of 2 field-goal attempts — the ’Cats used the formation twice.
“It’s a factor I hadn’t really considered when we started the swinging-gate idea,” Ash said Tuesday. “I got to thinking early on that we were knocking him out of some easy ways to improve his own confidence. We may try the swinging gate a little less moving forward, but we’re not going to abandon it completely; I still like a lot of it.”
That said, Perez has attempted — and made — 12 extra points in the past two games and 3 of 4 field-goal attempts.
“Just the fact that he’s making it in live competition with a good rush, all of those just add up to the confidence level,” Ash said.
A deeper look into the kicker’s cumulative season numbers shows a large percentage of Perez’s misses this season are from an area he struggled with last season. Of the five attempts Perez has been errant on, two have come from the 30- to 39-yard range. From the same distance, Perez was 5 for 7 in 2012.
The bye week should present him with an opportunity to continue to find the groove he got into last season when he had a streak of six consecutive made kicks and another of seven.
“It’ll be a great work week. I can get in a lot of kicks in this week at practice,” Perez said. “I’ve already talked about it with (special teams intern) Dave (Harrington), so I can just get a lot of work in this week and do a lot of drill that will definitely benefit (me).”
Kyle Sample can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @kylesample_bdc.