Pitt's Harper tees off on early struggles

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Facing rainy and blustery conditions Saturday in Buffalo, Pitt could adjust some parts of its game plan to account for the weather.

The Panthers ran a little bit more and didn't try as many deep passes.

Kicker Kevin Harper, though, didn't have that luxury. He had to come out and kick the same ball, on the same turf, through the same uprights. And he did.

Twice.

Harper made field goals from 45 and 22 yards Saturday, providing some insurance points in a game where the offense wasn't clicking on all cylinders.

The two kicks might also provide a spark of confidence for Harper, who has been inconsistent on his field-goal attempts so far this season. Entering Saturday's game, he had made 6 of 11.

"When your stats aren't that good, people are kind of getting on you. You've just got to get your confidence from within," Harper said after the game.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst said he was happy to see his kicker put together a solid game and help the Panthers come away with points even when the offense stalled in the red zone.

"At that point, we needed something positive," Chryst said. "Like I said earlier, the great thing about sports is now he gets the chance to do that again and be that guy."

Harper missed his only attempt, a 50-yard kick, the previous week against Louisville. In a 14-13 loss to Syracuse the game before, he made two of three. That one miss, though, could have potentially swung the game.

"I did have seven of our 13 points, but yeah, when it comes down, you lose by one and you missed a field goal, you think, 'I should've made that field goal,' " Harper said.

So it's safe to say Harper wasn't exactly riding a hot streak into the wind and rain at UB Stadium Saturday. When he trotted out for a 45-yard attempt in the first quarter, though, he said he put all the struggles out of his mind.

The kick sailed through the uprights, a season-long for Harper.

"It was definitely a big kick, a big confidence booster to get back on track," he said.

"When you go out there, you've just got to have a clear mind and not think about anything. You've got to have a short-term memory, especially as a kicker. My confidence never wavers, whether I'm 0 for 20 or 20 for 20."

He added another 22-yarder later in the first quarter to give the Panthers a 6-0 lead.

Harper said he learned a mental trick in his early kicking days to keep the misses from haunting him.

After every miss, he fills a cup of Gatorade on the sideline. While he's drinking, he thinks about the kick he just missed. As soon as that cup is empty, the miss is completely out of his mind.

"Whether it's a make or a miss, you can't get too high or too low, because that's when you lose focus," Harper said.

That focus could be crucial for Pitt down the stretch. As the weather gets colder, Heinz Field notoriously becomes a more challenging place for kickers. The venue is routinely included on lists of the most difficult NFL and college stadiums when it comes to kicking.

The most challenging part, at least for Harper, is the turf that gets chewed up after months of Pitt and Steelers games. The wind blowing in through the open end of the stadium doesn't help either.

But Harper has shown the ability to conquer the challenges of Heinz Field. His career-long field goal, a 52-yard kick against Cincinnati last year, is the record for a collegiate kicker in the stadium.

"The field condition comes into play [and] the weather and everything. But I think it plays to my advantage being a veteran. I've kicked there a lot," Harper said.

"I've got to get used to it. It's something you've just got to do. You can't make excuses or anything like that."

pittsports

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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