Arkansas St.'s hopes might rest on Neihouse's foot
LAFAYETTE, La. -- Even though Arkansas State is a heavy underdog in this week's New Orleans Bowl, the Indians are confident about one thing.
If Eric Neihouse lines up for another game-winning kick, Arkansas State should be in pretty good shape.
"If it's going to come down to a field goal at the end, we know it's going to be good," quarterback Nick Noce said.
Arkansas State (6-5) will face Southern Mississippi (6-5) in Tuesday night's New Orleans Bowl, and Neihouse is a major reason why. The fifth-year senior scored 69 points this season and was a first-team all-Sun Belt selection -- and his two game-winning kicks in October helped keep the Indians' bowl dreams alive.
Neihouse is 12-of-20 on field goals this season, hardly a spectacular success rate. But he's been at his best with the game on the line.
"He learned that he can go out when the pressure's on and perform," coach Steve Roberts said Sunday. "There wasn't a better kicker in our conference at preparing and going out and doing what he needed to do with that type of pressure."
On Oct. 1, Neihouse made a career-best 50-yard field goal with 1:22 remaining, giving Arkansas State a three-point lead at Louisiana-Monroe. Arkansas State eventually lost 31-27, but Neihouse's kick set the tone for a remarkable month.
Arkansas State's next game was against Louisiana-Lafayette, and Neihouse made a 35-yard field goal as time expired for a 39-36 win. The following week, the Indians beat Florida Atlantic 3-0 in the first NCAA game to go to overtime scoreless. Neihouse's won that one with a 21-yard kick.
"Having the confidence, not only in yourself, but in your teammates -- and your teammates having confidence in you -- that helps out a lot," Neihouse said.
Confidence was a problem for Neihouse earlier in his career. After redshirting in 2001, he went only 13-of-29 on field goals the next two seasons.
Hoping to shake his early struggles, Neihouse found help from Steve Cox, a former NFL punter and kicker who lives in Arkansas. The two met through an allergy doctor Neihouse went to see, and Cox began helping the young kicker.
"He got ahold of me and we started visiting," Neihouse said. "He just noticed I had the potential, I just really didn't have it between the ears."
The last two years, Neihouse has been a different kicker. He went 11-of-16 on field goals in 2004, and this year, he's helped Arkansas State overcome an inconsistent offense.
At one point this season, the Indians scored 29 points over four games. But they won two of them -- the overtime victory over Florida Atlantic and a 9-3 win over Troy. Neihouse kicked three field goals -- including a 49-yarder -- against Troy.
"Two games we won, and the offense didn't score a touchdown. That's very unheard of," said Neihouse, who has also averaged 37.6 yards per punt this season.
Neihouse's success hasn't affected Arkansas State's game plans. Roberts says his play calling would be the same even if he didn't have such a dependable kicker.
But with Neihouse, the Indians have an added luxury -- and this week, they'll need every advantage they can find. The Sun Belt Conference has won only once in the first four New Orleans Bowls, and this year, Arkansas State opened as a 17½-point underdog against Southern Mississippi.
Neihouse hopes the Indians can pull the upset without any last-second heroics -- but as usual, he's prepared to provide them.
"I hope we go out and dominate -- where we just blow them away," Neihouse said. "But if it does come down to it, I'll be ready."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press